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If Mom Can’t Set up the WiFi, We’re Doing Something Wrong

If Mom Can’t Set up the WiFi, We’re Doing Something Wrong

January 12, 2019 4:37 pm1 comment

Today my parents called me to help them find their wifi password, because apparently they think I do IT support for a living. Since I don’t have their wifi password (why would I?), I walked them through logging into their router settings using the defaults, on the one device that was already connected to the network. Xfinity, unhelpfully, doesn’t let you change your wifi password using the router settings and makes you install their xFi app instead. After trying on the phone, and then FaceTime on a third phone so I could see the screen, coordinating two apps across three different devices, we were able to figure it out.

The first thing to occur to me was that even Sergey Brin probably still gets calls from his parents to help them with their wifi or their printer. The mechanics of what we’re talking about are so devastatingly simple, that even ‘knowing anything about technology’ is qualifying.

But the more profound realization I had is that we technologists are failing the public in building accessible products. WiFi is a 20+ year old technology and we’re still depending on antiquated security measures like routers whose defaults never change, coupled with frustrating security measures like passwords people use only once thus guaranteeing they won’t remember it, unless they write it down on a post-it note next to the computer, defeating the whole point.

Which is to say it’s completely unacceptable that my parents can’t use the most basic technology tools. They just aren’t basic enough.

I recall this excellent talk by Charlie Owen about web accessibility and how we were too busy as technologists pushing fancier code and ignoring the basics. We tend to take shortcuts to make projects easier for us, but if the occasional ‘edge case’ (she calls them ‘stress cases’) comes along, that’s not our problem.

Every time a parent calls a child to get help setting up technology, we’re not only failing our users, but we’re creating massive inefficiency in our own industry. That inefficiency means fewer people using the technology we worked so hard to build.

So, if you find yourself building a technology product, remember to build something that works for everyone. Put it in front of your mom to see if she can use it. Because if she can’t, you can expect a lot more phone calls.

1 Comment

  • I disagree with this conclusion strongly for two reasons.

    First, I don’t actually believe that most of the need for tech support by people’s moms has anything to do with how difficult the tech actually is to use. My mother is an accomplished lawyer with multiple advanced degrees and obviously highly intelligent yet I see her struggle with computer technology that fairly stupid acquaintances manage with ease.

    Rather, the problem is that my mother (and I believe many people of her generation) has been conditioned to find tech scary and intimidating (often by early generations of such tech where simple mistakes could screw stuff up). It’s not the fault of the people making software now that many people in older generations are convinced they can’t figure it out.

    Yes, you can often design software that is so linear and limited in its allowed interactions so as to assuage such fears but imo that usually comes at a significant cost in usability/convienience.

    Second, often the best interface for a new kind of technology or product is to introduce new kinds of affordances. The best and most useable software products (especially on phones) don’t insist on rigidly mimicking the interface and tools used in a paper office/desktop. Instead, they introduce new basic elements of interaction like swiping, toolbars, tabs etc.. In my experience much of the tech support I end up doing for parents has to do with unfamiliarity with these new basic ui elements. Thus, in some sense, ease of use for those of us who are familiar and conversant with the kinds of ui which is most appropriate for these technologies is in tension with ease of use for those who aren’t familiar with it.