Retro tech for baby boomers

Confused elderly man with remote control

Our final child is about to to go to uni, leaving us in a lifestyle abyss.   A clear sign of middle-age dependency is the alarming inability to achieve what used to be everyday simple tasks – set the video, plug a postcode into the satnav, tune the radio, even turn on the telly.  (Recently I had to send a panic all-family whatsapp to find out why I was faced with a blank grey screen with little indecipherable boxes bottom left, solved by my son guiding me from Australia to press the right button and restore us to the Sunday calm of Countryfile.)

As the baby boomer generation we have been through the pain of evolution from analogue to digital, dials to buttons, pen and paper to typing and screens, and by and large have managed pretty well.  However all the new stuff that technology now throws at us is the start of a losing battle because it’s simply not in our DNA to work out how it works, and if we don’t get it now we are simply never going to.

But the geeks and designers just don’t get this.  Intent on progress and the fascination of what is possible, they completely overlook the fact that there is a massive and growing population of other people (50+) who don’t want to buy or use what excites a 20-something tecchy, and do want something they can understand and use without having to resort to huffing offspring or expensive IT gurus to help with a basic but apparently unsolvable problem.

Life was sweet when there was just one remote rather than 3 to learn your way around, a sensible range of options that were relevant to what you might need rather than hundreds that you don’t, words and numbers rather than icons requiring guesswork and glasses and – yes! BIG WRITING!

What the geeks & designers need to wake up to is that the person who invents retro-tech is going to make a fortune. New ideas are tested in usability labs, but by definition laboratory testing has limitations and does not represent a real-life environment where there are no prompts or time limits on tasks.

As a researcher, I would love to get the gs&ds involved in some good in-depth ethnographic research, where they could lurk in someone’s home and actually observe just how challenging it is to understand and cope with all the symbols, beeps and buttons when it’s not an instinctive or intuitive process.   Then they might ask themselves, how would my granny cope with this? and perhaps come up with a few practical modifications to the most basic things that cause frustration on a daily basis.

Some might say tough, work it out and live with it, but I believe there is a massive opportunity for the development of baby-boomer-tech, targeted at those who are open to new things but need more in the way of the kind of usability they are used to.

That, in a nutshell, would be real progress, ie simplifying what has become way overly complicated just because it can.  And we would all rush out and buy buy buy and never have to panic again that when the telly goes blank we won’t know what to press, because it will all be easy and obvious and Countryfile will be safely there on Sunday just has it always has been.

Clare Wade, newly-empty-nested Research Consultant.