As I watch my parents in their senior years, I observe their struggles with today’s technology. It could enrich their lives so much, but instead, its complications leave them angry and frustrated, as I’ve written here before. I’ve decided to do something about it.
I’m founding a new movement in software design. I call it Assisted Computing™, patterned after assisted living. Assisted Computing rests on two fundamental principles:
First Principle: A technologically savvy person, whom I call the Assistor, assists the user with the portions of technology that the user is unable to handle for themselves.
Second Principle: Apps and operations are ruthlessly simplified so that the user can access the app’s primary functionality without assistance.
For example, my father loves music. The user interface of Spotify (Figure 1) is far too complicated for him to use. I have trouble with it myself. Even if I set up some playlists and write out detailed instructions for playing them, it will remain too confusing for him to use, and too easy for him to inadvertently break my careful setup.
Figure 1 Spotify PC App
Way Too Complicated for My Dad
Tricky Even for Me
My Dad can use an iPad if the apps are relatively simple. He reads the New York Times in the Safari Browser, and reads books in the Kindle and Libby apps I set up for him. Using Xamarin Forms, I wrote an iPad app that allows him to play pre-configured Spotify playlists through a smart speaker. Figure 2 shows this app:
Prototype Assisted Computing™ Remote Control iPad App
I acted as the Assistor, setting up the Spotify account, configuring the streams, connecting the app to the Wi-Fi in his assisted living community. I’ve ruthlessly, brutally, simplified the function of this app. He can play the four streams (three of them are Spotify radio stations, so he won’t always hear the same songs) that I’ve selected. He can raise or lower the volume. And he can turn them off. Nothing else.
He can’t make playlists. He can’t rearrange the songs. He can’t send likes or dislikes to the playlist selection AI. He can’t even skip tracks or repeat them. I’ve deliberately not surfaced those capabilities in this app.
What he can do is listen to music without thinking about it. And that’s something he didn’t have before, something that he really likes.
And one of the best features is this: I can change his music selections remotely. You see button #4 says “Call Dave”. When he calls me, I can put anything he wants on that button’s list. The benefit is not so much having the music that he wants. It’s the human connection that it encourages him to make. It helps to alleviate one of the biggest problems with senior living today: loneliness. “Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity,” said a recent report from health care company Cigna. Assisted living residents don’t see many other people, and those they do see are as old and creaky as they are. This button gives him a reason to reach out and talk to me.
I’ve written a full report on this case study and the AT Movement, which you can download here.
I’ll be continuing to design and prototype AT applications. The next one I’m targeting is Zoom. My dad enjoys video calls with Zoom, but the complicated UI gets in the way. He doesn’t want to schedule meetings, only to attend meetings scheduled by others. He doesn’t care about the chat room, or sharing his screen, or anything like that. The AT app won’t have these distractions. And the Assistor will configure the links to the meetings he regularly attends, so he doesn’t have to mess with his email. It’ll be night-and-day easier.
My Harvard Summer School class, CSCI-S36, Advanced User Experience Engineering, will be working on Assisted Computing projects. We meet live online, Mondays and Wednesdays at 3:15 ET, starting June 22. It’s project-based, hands-on, and open to the public. I hope I’ll see you there.
What’s kind of funny is that I’m already getting calls from non-seniors, from middle-aged people like my daughter’s teachers, saying “Can we have simple apps too?” I might be on to something even bigger than I thought.
What do you think? Use the comment form to send me your thoughts. Thanks.