Assisted Computing: Enriching the Lives of Those Who Need It Most

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:

Figure 2
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.

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11 Comments

  1. Great ideas, I struggled to help my dad with this sort of thing as dementia got the better of him. What I wanted most was *100% control* over his TV- I wanted to remotely change the channel on his cable box, start a Netflix or Plex movie, turn it all on and off, volume, etc. I’d often find him watching the home shopping channel all day because he couldn’t navigate the guides. Or his audio would be switched to Spanish. I sort of helped him by remoting into his computer to start movies but it would be better to build the capabilities into the TVs and set top boxes themselves.

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    1. Not sure what to tell you here, Josh. It works for me on my PC (via Chrome), on my iPad (via Safari and also Chrome), and on my Android phone (also Chrome). It’s downloaded in MS Word .docx format, which usually launches a view app on the target system. Sometimes there’s a delay in this launch. Maybe try another system or device? Sorry I can’t be more helpful. It’s like the classic joke about how many tech support engineers it takes to change a lightbulb: None. “We can’t reproduce your problem. All the lightbulbs here are working fine.”

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  2. As always Dave, great post! I feel your pain, my mother calls me every week for computer (Windows 10) help. When I tell her to click on X she can never find it. OK that big box on the lower left type in XXXX. Where is that, I don’t see it?
    As you well know, the problem is: apps are too often created by developers (disclaimer I have over 40 years designing and implementing systems) who are clueless to how a non-technical user can use the cryptic UI they build.
    And never mind how many times she infects her computer w/ malware, despite my having installed software to protect her, she still clicks on anything she gets…
    And PLEASE keep writing these. I’ve read you for the last 10 years in MSDN. Always read the last page first…

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  3. Sorry but the comment boxes where laid on top of each other so i could not comment.

     

    I totally agree with this. I've done the same thing in domotica. I had a house full of technology and screens to control all. But my wife just wants it to work as she expect it. So out all those screen and i programmed a very behaviors in the system. No more need to go to a screen and turm the volume up in the bathroom when the fan goes on. It just happens. The control she have (and needs) are very basic and now she loves the whole system.

     

    Regards, Bram van Zoelen http://zoelen.net

       

    Sent: Monday, June 01, 2020 at 11:20 PM

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  4. “Call Dave” is possibly the best feature you ever coded! Years of programming and you have nailed it!

    Human interaction, definitely. When the “rona” started ramping up, I worked with mom, teaching her how to use snap chat. Now we’re snapping all day, every day. Simple pictures, a quick look, a smile and things are just better. The beauty of something like snap chat, there is no storage. The data is all throw away so we can communicate a lot, and moar is better.

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  5. Hello.
    I was talking with a friend today about Steam. She has a disease that will take her vision completely some day, but bigger letters usually help her to read on any screen. But Steam is just terrible! Small letters even for me, all crowded off information and deep blue and gray, so no contract to help us see anything.
    I’m not good yet to make an app for her, but will surely try to.
    Thanks for the awesome ideia, and some nice critical thinking.
    I found your work on the very last issue of MSDN last year, and felt so lucky that you keep posting them here.
    So, thank you again =)

    Like

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