If you teach a mom to watch netflix, she will watch TV for a lifetime.
October 13, 2011 11:16 AM   Subscribe

What are some techniques to help reluctant adult learners and technophobes (read: my parents) become more confident and want to use things? Or, if not, what are some good ways to help them help themselves?

(Note: Yes, I understand that I can't make people do things they don't want to do. Yes, my mother is crazy and we have a rollercoaster of a relationship. Yes, I love them anyway. No, they don't need to do things my way.)

We are your typical live-near-middle-aged-parents, do-their-tech-stuff couple. (See here.) My mother emailed me this morning, fearful that in her attempt to watch Netflix on their newly installed Apple TV, she had deleted things from OUR queue. My dad, who is much more eager to embrace technology but much more likely to get confused and/or completely forget about stuff, tells her things that make no sense, so she gets easily flustered and reverts to her woe-is-me technique.

My parents are smart people in their early 60s, but my mother is basically a female Andy Rooney. She refuses to use modern things, but when she does, she uses broken and/or outdated stuff that makes it harder to use and harder to explain, thereby making her even crankier with technology. But she does love her iTunes, and she seems to use her iPod nano pretty well, aside from the complications that her kludged-up computer (thanks, Dad) continues to give her.

Clearly, the best technique is to only introduce new things with which they are a) somewhat familiar already, and b) very enthusiastic about. And I thought that was going to be the case with this. They had Netflix before, for a few months, and the Apple TV is much simpler than any other box. But no.

So this question is not so much about Netflix and Apple TV, nor is it about giving up on them and letting them do their thang. (Seriously. Please don't go there; that is basically my entire posting history.)

What are some compassionate, patient ways you have found help increase your parents' satisfaction/willingness to try new things, while reducing the number of times you have to go over there and hook the dang cable back up?
I can write tutorials, walk them through things as they do them themselves, whatever.

posted by Madamina to Human Relations (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Depending on how technology (il)literate they are and local offerings, have you considered suggesting to them that they take some classes at their local library? Doing something like that might help them gain a little more comfort/confidence in dealing with computers. (I know this isn't exactly what you're asking for in that it's not something you're doing, but it was the first thing that came to mind. My step father can barely even turn a computer on, but he's been taking a class at his local library, and I think it's doing a good job at making the whole thing seem less foreign to him.)
posted by divisjm at 11:30 AM on October 13, 2011

Simplify everything. My mother wouldn't use a Kindle, but show her a nook touch with her library of books already in it and she's an ereading fool. No worries that they both do the same thing the Kindle just had too many buttons and so she was sure she'd be confused before she even started no matter what I told her.

She wouldn't use a computer until my husband basically set on up with only few icons for the software she wanted on the desktop (Firefox set to start at Google everytime), Firefox set to start up at on her gmail account with her account all auto logged in, Word, Some software to look at her pics and print them and a directory with all her files in with no subdirectories and some games she likes). That's it, that's all she wants to do, she doesn't want to know how it works or how to set it up. He mobile phone is the same, big numbers and it basically just makes calls that's it, she's had it for something like 7 years. It would drive me crazy, works for her.

My mother and I both know she could learn to use the stuff if she wanted to, but she can't see the point. It doesn't interest her. She hates having to upgrade stuff all the time she just wants stuff to work. As she says, there is something new every year my life is too short to spend hours learning all this when all I want to do is make a phone call/read a book/send an email and it will all be different when the next one comes out anyway.

Just wondering did they say they wanted Apple TV or like my husband did you run in full of geek love for a shiny new technology and set up something for them? Not criticizing just wondering if they where they happy with how they used Netflix earlier why change it?

Just remember all the technological changes your parents have been through in the last 60 years, hell they probably remember when TV was the new in thing they have seen all the shiny stuff come and be replaced with more new things, they don't want the latest and the newest as they know it will pass and they probably aren't all that interested in learning it over and over again. They want it as a tool that will do what they want.

Set it up as simply and as foolproof as possible. For example, my mother wants a book for her ereader, she's connected to my account so I buy the book for her, she connects to WiFi (we already set it up with password etc and she has step by step written down instructions she wrote in her own words to remind her in case she forgets how), book downloads and is in her library. Be prepared to offer lot's of help as they get the hang of it, then don't keep changing it. It will make things less stressful for all of you.

By the way my Father spent the last 25 years or so of his life Kludging up computers, my earliest childhood memories where trying to teach him to write basic on a Commodore 64 you are probably not going to cure your Dad of the kludging.

TL;DR Simplify everything. Remove all extra steps and Buttons. Simplify, Simplify Simplify. (If only I'd simplified my post)
posted by wwax at 11:52 AM on October 13, 2011

I'll second the classes. My grandfather was having the worst time trying to use PC's, and has had a breakthrough with his macbook. It has very little to do with the usability of the two, and everything to do with the fact that he can drop into the mac store and watch a personable demonstration.
posted by politikitty at 11:54 AM on October 13, 2011

I am somewhat like your parents : I was not raised with an idea that person's obligation is to LOVE to spend all their time with computers and technology toys . I work in different field , so I want these things to be my tools and help me to do things , not to eat all my time when I need to do very simple tasks . Yes , I want just to make a phone call , or send an email -- and go back to my business .
Imagine that every time when you want to get a new dress , you are told to learn to make patterns , and then get one more - new and improved - sewing machine , learn how to use it -- because the last month's machine is already outdated ; and then sew your stuff yourself ( "what , it is very easy , even children can do it ! You just learn and enjoy ! " ) .... Maybe you happened to enjoy something else ? You just want/need a shirt , without joy of mastering art of sewing ?
To me , all these extra buttons and features are like endless noise . No any purpose but keep someone busy and fill the time with mindless activity.
Try to think about "technology" not as a toy to play , but a tool to do work .
1. What is it that you want to do ? ( no , not "what you can do using that device "--stay focused ! You wanted to do : a phone call )
2.What is needed in order to make a phone call ? you need to dial a phone number . You need to talk into microphone . you need to hear the other person.That's all. All the rest is extra stuff that you might want , but it is not needed for the phone call .
posted by Oli D. at 12:51 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you read this thread? Some of the comments and links might be useful, especially jessamyn's link to Phil Agre's "How to Help Someone Use a Computer."
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:26 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

My father was pretty much hopeless about really using the computer, especially doing things like connecting it to a digital camera and sending photos until my nephew was born. As soon as he started spending time with his grandson and taking photos on their outings and wanting to be proud Papa about it, he picked it up pretty fast. So it's motivation, largely.

Also, I think you have to be really nonchalant about the things they might do wrong. I think people really really worry that with technology they could make one mistake and the whole house might blow up. So, she deletes things from the queue! WHATEVS. You have to be extra cool with it no matter how you might really be feeling. (Note that I'm not saying that you weren't cool here, just as general advice). I think the onus is on the more technically inclined to set things up so people can't accidentally do something irreparable. "Oh, no, don't worry - there isn't anything you're going to be able to do that will make any real problems." It's not that they think they can't learn it, it's that they know they'll make mistakes at the beginning and worry about the damage and feeling stupid if someone has to reprimand them.
posted by marylynn at 1:27 PM on October 13, 2011

I spent a day showing my mother how to list items on ebay, which probably helped her general web literacy more than anything else. If you can find something your mother would be very interested in doing with a computer, this will gradually pull her into learning more.

Sometimes it's been helpful to point out specific pitfalls to avoid, things that would go under a big flashing banner of "do not do this" (things like phishing or posting too many details about certain things), and encouraged experimentation in other areas (here is your new X, it's not yet linked up to Y, so you don't have to worry about accidentally doing Z).

Most of what I've explained has been things they have asked for, rather than things I know of that I think they would want (I don't know which category Apple TV falls in for them). There are some exceptions to this with things that cause me personal inconvenience in some way or that I think would be very good things to already have in place as they get older and new technologies are introduced to help people in the aging process, although I don't generally mention that aspect.

I never, never, never get them any sort of tech as a surprise present, or install new software on their current machine that will change how things work for the user without them being involved. There's so many options out there that it doesn't make sense to decide these things for other people in a lot of cases. I've seen relatives get gifts from others that they want to learn to use out of guilt that the giver would expect to see them using it, and there is often a lot of frustration in learning and anger at the giver involved -- the present created work for them, rather than enjoyment.

It's not clear if you decided they would like an apple tv due to having a netflix subscription or not -- they might not care about getting the movie immediately instead of choosing what to watch in advance and putting it in their queue.

You talk mostly about your mother in your post. It sounds like many of the problems she has come from your father. She might do better learning things on her own if you explain to her that dad doesn't actually understand all this that well -- it's not clear if she even knows this. Point her to some online tutorials or classes, so she has some way of learning about tech other than listening to your dad. She might do better with a computer of her own that she has control over instead of sharing his, even if they can only afford something a little older.

For things like going over and plugging a cable back in, as long as they have the mobility to do it, tell them gently they need to do it themselves. I'm not understanding why you would be doing this if you can walk them through things -- perhaps a class from someone else would be good for them, maybe it would be easier for them to learn how to do things from someone who isn't their child.
posted by yohko at 1:28 PM on October 13, 2011

Response by poster: I was kidding about the plugging cables back in thing... mostly. When we attached their digital converter box a couple years ago, we discovered that the cable was a) backward and b) missing the thing that makes a male cable male (and the connection work).

They stopped using Netflix because oh, it was expensive to spend money on something they "never used." My mom streamed stuff, but it was onto her spotty-connectioned computer with the small monitor. So once we found them a cheap HDTV, I restarted their account, paying for it myself (hey, it's 9 bucks), and we got them an Apple TV.

The Apple TV is way less complex than any other similar box (only a few services, and a fairly intuitive interface), and we sat down and watched them explore it themselves to see where the problems might be. They seemed to get it just fine with minimal prompting, and we took off absolutely everything we could think of that might distract. We always do as much as we can to simplify before we do anything with them; I gave my mom the Nano with everything already set up, so that when she saw the entire Beatles oeuvre on there she actually accepted the thing.

She has her own computer (my dad's old one), and spends a fair amount of time on it, but my dad messed it up when she first got it and we haven't been able to get her something that actually works consistently. Still trying to do that.

So yeah, I'm mainly trying to just emphasize that if you want to watch Netflix, just keep trying to watch Netflix. It's no big deal; don't throw up your hands.

I don't think she would ever go take a class. It doesn't mean a darn thing to her, and she would rather just stay home. This is a woman who wears shoes two sizes too big to a step aerobics class because they're a good brand, even though she might break an ankle. She is wedded to ridiculous ways of making do when just getting something that works would be so much easier.
posted by Madamina at 2:39 PM on October 13, 2011

I'm not sure if this is overly rudimentary for your mother, but for my grandmother we printed out pictorial guides for each thing she would want to do on her computer with basic solutions to common problems she might run into if something went wrong.
posted by abirdinthehand at 4:38 PM on October 13, 2011

She is wedded to ridiculous ways of making do when just getting something that works would be so much easier.

Oh. I'm not sure that you can really do much if she's like that about everything. In my case I was encouraging someone who had some concrete motivations for wanting to learn specific things in service of a larger goal, but perhaps there is something in the lives of your parents that would help pull them into a desire to learn something that you haven't thought of yet.

The killer app that gives that pull for a lot of older folks on that is grandchildren. It's a little scary to see the single-minded motivation and persistence of a grandparent bent on figuring out wifi so they can show off the youtube video of the grandchild, actually. That's probably not the solution you are looking for though.

I have insisted on some things related to basic safety, and finances (please learn to use this cell phone in case you are injured and can't walk or drive, you must never reply to an email that asks for your bank account password, etc.)

It's not feasible to insist on too many things, it can result in all insisting being ignored, like The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

You might just be stuck with them needing a lot of handholding as you did with the iPod. It sounds like you are very frustrated with this situation and unwilling to do as much of that as you had been in the past. If that is the case my suggestion is to focus on what will have the worst consequences if they don't know how to deal with it -- for instance, knowing how the microwave works would be an important skill for independent living if it were to become dangerous for you to operate a stove (and if they wait to learn it until that point, learning it then might be difficult or impossible).
posted by yohko at 5:47 PM on October 13, 2011

Best answer: xkcd's tech suppot cheat sheet might, or might not help.
It hopefully helps present the message that bumbling around is legitimate, it works, and it's how the "smart" people get stuff done.

I think the knowledge that they don't know what they're doing is very off-putting to many people when they try to use complex devices, and it really shouldn't be.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:21 AM on October 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Harlequin, you've hit the nail on the head. What I most wish would happen is that they remain undaunted and just keep swimmin'.

We went over last night and did a couple things which should hopefully help. Interesting: we didn't realize that it is super easy to program any old remote to control the Apple TV, so we don't have to use the teeny one. We learned this through, yes, bumbling. I will probably have to white out the "VCR" button and write "APPLE TV" on it, but they'll get there. I think she was most put out that she had been forced to watch The Man Who Knew Too Little.

Then we played the Ira Glass sex tape, and everyone laughed.
posted by Madamina at 8:38 AM on October 14, 2011

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