What would a truly Senior-friendly Operating System look like?
November 26, 2008

From many sessions helping seniors with their computer problems, I've gleaned some idea of how they think a computer should behave.

Note that the ideas listed here only apply to the current generation of seniors. It is doubtful that when the current generation of children grow old, they will have the same requirements.

My usability wish list:

  • Most important is that the interface be DOCUMENT-based, not application-based. There should be no distinction between the operating system or shell (Finder, Desktop, whatever) and the applications. In other words, there should be only one big application that does everything.

  • For example, the idea that there is a separate application to manage and edit photos and one to edit text is a needless complexity.

  • Tree-based file systems are completely lost on them - there has to be a simpler way to find documents.

  • Documents should end up in only one place, with no alternatives. They should not be asked to add meaningful metadata to anything. The computer must figure it out somehow. Perhaps they could be asked once to find a picture of each family member, and from then on, the computer could recognize that person and tag them for searches.

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    Posted by ellen at November 26, 2008 09:43 PM

  • Note, however, the fact that they want a simple operating system should not be construed to mean that they want to do simple tasks. They want to be able to run complete businesses or non-profits from their homes, communicate with a wide range of people using email, forums, chat, etc. They want to create forms that can be filled out online, and send complex documents with many graphics and photos.

  • Backup should be universal and automatic.

  • Documents that are being edited should save themselves every minute, and all versions of the document should be accessible through some easy roll-back interface, perhaps like in a wiki. Except much less confusing than a wiki!

  • Attachments in email should automatically download and be easy to find and use. There should be no distinction or loss of functionality between opening things in email and opening them in the 'real' editing application.

  • Security worries should vanish, because they are hopeless. The computer must be smart enough to repel all attacks.

  • All text should be larger, screens should be larger, and mouse targets (scrollbars, resizing corners, little "x's") should be larger.

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1 Comment

Agreed on all points. I didn't realize the "youth-oriented" bias of digital tech till I had to teach a senior how to access email, surf the net, etc. As you pointed out, very few of the concepts make any sense to them. The learning curve is deceptively steep.

I expect this will turn out to be a lost generation of users, since there's little incentive for companies to spend time and money on a rapidly draining pool of clients. It's a bit like building WWII-vet-friendly jets.

But thanks for the post. First sensible list I've seen on the topic in a long time.


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