Living, or Why Doesn’t My
Towson University | JLazar@towson.edu
I like new technology, but I hate when it is forced
on me. Even more so, I hate when new technology
is forced on my grandparents, who are both 89
years old. I do everything that I can to help them
out in their one-story home. I added motion detectors so that lights automatically go on and off. I
added handrails in the hallways and grab bars in
the bathroom. But I find it harder and harder to
keep the technology simple in their house. As a
professor of computer and information sciences,
I know how much technology can help us. I study
usage of technology, but I still don’t like when new
technology or “upgrades” are nonnegotiable.
A lot of HCI people get excited about the possibilities for new technologies as people get older.
The baby boomer generation, as they age, will be
more likely to be open-minded to adopting new
technologies. I’m sure that in 25 years, people in
their 90s will be using handheld computing devices. In the future, grandparents will email their
grandchildren. However, I’m not interested in baby
boomers or the future. I’m interested in helping my
grandparents right now. My grandparents have
never used a computer, never sent an email, and
aren’t interested in doing so.
Comcast, one of two local cable TV providers,
recently upgraded four of their channels from
analog to digital, without telling any subscribers (I
found this out after the fact, in the newspaper). For
people with older TVs and no set-top box, suddenly,
four channels didn’t work. So my grandparents
did what any subscriber would do—they called
Comcast. The representative said a technician
would come out to look at the connection to see
what was wrong. I was out of town at a conference, which I now regret. Instead, Comcast came
out to install new set top boxes, which require
new remote controls. Was this a bit misleading of
Comcast? They knew that it wasn’t a wiring problem, but didn’t tell my grandparents what they
were going to do. Yes it was misleading, but I want
to talk about usability, not misleading marketing.
My grandparents called me to say their TVs
were no longer working. Technically, yes, they were
working. However, they were impossible to use.
The old setup was cable hooked up directly to TVs,
and simple remote controls (which had only nine
buttons, all of which were relatively large). No one
at Comcast asked them if they wanted this change.
No one from Comcast considered how these new
remotes would impact on their TV-watching experience. I showed my grandparents how to use the
new remote controls, but they said, “it’s too complicated, it’s not worth the bother.” It’s understandable: The new remotes are tough to use. There are
too many buttons (more than 50), they are very
small, and my grandparents can’t even read what
some of the buttons say. To be honest, I at first had
some trouble figuring out how to use the remotes.
So my grandparents stopped watching TV. When
I heard that, I was disgusted (with Comcast, not
my grandparents). I came back, unplugged the
Comcast set-top boxes, and changed their TV setup
back to what it was, minus the four channels that
they cannot now receive. But at least they are
watching TV again.
When the person from Comcast came back to
pick up the set-top boxes that my grandparents were
no longer using (p.s., they charged for the visit!), I
asked him more questions about this change. He
explained that customers in our county had gotten
used to watching TV channels from both Baltimore
and Washington, DC, and they shouldn’t have,
because it’s hard for Comcast to support channels
from both cities. He then explained that the set-top boxes in other counties are much easier to use.