Not All Technical Writing is Good: How I Taught iPad to My 96-Year-Old Neighbor

msfosterWhen I tell people that I write about technology, they think that I am a technical writer for Wireless and Mobile News, for which I am editor and a technology writer or journalist. I cover breaking technology. Part of my talent is figuring out what people want to read and then giving them the information in a format that they can understand. When I wrote “Computers Made Plain” articles for Investor’s Business Daily, I wrote for the audience of intelligent investors who needed to know how computers worked.

On the other hand, when I worked as a technical writer, I wrote manuals for new software programs and also created courseware for senior citizens who had a different framework for learning. Before writing a technical document, you have to know the experience level of the users and what they already understand.

Google in a job description for a technical writer wrote:

“Technical writers take complex information and communicate it clearly, concisely and accurately without relying on technical or corporate jargon to explain what they’re trying to say.”

I agree with that definition, however, I have found two major documents that were written by technical writers that don’t work in all circumstances.

How I Taught a 96-Year-Old How to Use Her iPad.

My neighbor is 96 years old, has never used a computer and was given an iPad with LTE access by her nephew. For this article, I will call her Mrs. Jones.

iPads do not come with paper manuals.  She had so little knowledge, she couldn’t find the manual online or even figure out how to turn on the iPad, because the power button is in the back and was covered by a case.

She was given the iPad and told to go the Apple store. She didn’t even know how to unlock it, her nephew put her login inside the case with her user name and password.

When I created courseware for senior citizens who had no prior knowledge of any thing having do with computers, I had to start with the framework, they already knew, the typewriter.  The typewriter and computer have the same QWERTY keyboards.  Then I told them about how what is on the screen is like the paper in the typewriter. Unlike paper in the typewriter, you can correct your errors on the computer screen before printing them on paper.

The typewriter metaphor worked for Mrs. Jones, also on the iPad.

Mrs. Jones didn’t even know what email was.

“Email is when you write a letter, it gets turned into data goes through the air to your nephew and gets turned back into text on his phone or iPad,” I told Mrs. Jones and she understood what email was.

She had gone a long way from when she first told she needed help with her iPod.  I asked her what she wanted to with it and she said, “I want pictures.”

It helped Mrs. Jones to remember  the email icon  because it looks like a little envelope on the screen.

When we emailed her nephew. It turns out that he was Louisiana in a car with an iPad with LTE data access.  He contact her immediately on FaceTime. Mrs. Jones, had trouble figuring out how to answer the FaceTime call and tapped disconnect.

He called again and the next time she tapped the answer button. She knew immediately what to do because it was like talking in person.

“Hello, I hope you are doing, well,” she said as if she were talking to him right in the room with her.

What I found the most interesting of what Mrs. Jones said about her visit to the Apple Store class, she said, “I was only the Black person in the class.”

I was thinking she was probably only the “nonogenarian” in the class.

The iPad user interface uses icons that are not obvious to every one. To reply to an email you have tap the back arrow and get a menu, then tap on reply.  It took me several minutes to explain to her how to reply to an email.

When I taught Microsoft products in the nineties, it was easier to teach because menus were in text with the word “reply.”

Apple is so i-centric and believes that it is easier for older people, it is in fact not easy for people who have never used an Apple computer or any computer at all.

I’ve talked to be people who have mothers and grandmothers who used Apple computers who had no problems using an iPad even in their sixties and seventies.

iPhones for Baby Boomers

The iPhone is not intuitive or easy for all ages either.  My sister, a Baby Boomer,  in her fifties, has never owned a computer or taken a class.  She spent a lot of money on an iPhone and couldn’t figure out how to use it.  I printed up the entire iPhone manual for her and sent it via snail mail. She lives too far away to help in person.  Now I could use FaceTime to show her how, but she doesn’t even know what FaceTime is.

If she were closer, I would first have to explain to her a little history behind the iPhone and why Steve Jobs designed the whole Apple system the way he did.  I would also go over how it is really a compact computer with a lot more power than a phone with apps that do certain tasks.

The other thing that really helps those who need reading glasses or have some arthritis in their fingers is a stylus, especially for generation who are used to using a pen for writing.

Teaching Baby Boomers is slightly different from the “Silent Generation.”  Boomers still had traditional schooling and learn by route and repetition but have a different attitude.  They  also have a  different framework and starting place.  Any school teacher will tell you, that you teach first graders differently from high school students.

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