/ Technology

Are silver surfers put off by complicated computers?

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has challenged technology manufacturers to make computers more user-friendly, so older people can benefit from the web. But are computers really the problem?

Ian Duncan Smith has asked tech companies to take into account the needs of older people when designing their computers.

He thinks manufactures and internet providers should ‘look at the potential marketplace for better and easier to use equipment’. And getting these people online could certainly be a lucrative market, as 6.4 million over-65s in Briton aren’t yet online.

Is it really a hardware problem?

However, I’m not convinced that the devices themselves are really the problem. I’d be inclined to say it’s the web content that can be most perplexing.

Last time I raised the issue of access to the online world here on Which? Conversation, one reader Les raised a good point in highlighting the deliberate disorientation tactics created by some websites. He said:

‘Many of our commercial websites seem to do their best to create uncertainty. I believe it is called confusion marketing. Take my bank for instance […] they cannot even let you know on your account page what interest you earn on that account. You have to hunt all around the bushes to find out!’

Furthermore, with internet industries under pressure to tighten their belts with regards to security, some online processes are getting increasingly tricky.

I often struggle to read the characters used in verifying a new online account. And then there are the additional steps springing up to access online banking – with gadgets such as “secure keys” causing a stir.

Who should pay to get people online?

The government claims that the UK would be £22 billion better off if everybody was online, so it’s easy to see its motive in asking industry to hurry the process along.

There’s no dispute that there are lots of people in Britain who don’t use the internet, but there’s still much discussion about how to change this, or indeed whether or not it should be changed.

Another commenter, Charlie, argued that those who stand to pocket savings from the migration online should foot the bill for helping unconfident online users:

‘Who should pay for training? My answer is definitely the manufacturers who are making enormous profits.’

I agree with Charlie that those profiting should take some responsibility for those people who are not able to benefit from the advantages the online world can offer.

I’m not convinced that the creation of a new market for more “user-friendly” computers, as Iain Duncan Smith is advocating, is the answer. For many people it’s the (not unfounded) fear of the online world that puts them off.


I believe that most are unwilling to make the effort to deal with anything invented after their childhood.

There is some truth in this but one of the reasons why people do not make the effort to keep up is that they do have a use for the latest gadgetry. Is that wrong?

I’ve read some pretty disparaging comments on old people not keeping up with new technology. It strikes me that there are some rather intolerant younger people who, having grown up with computers think that anyone who finds them hard to master are stupid, lazy or determined to resist progress. As has been said on this forum, there are people who would use the technology if it were simple because the benefits are clear but access is denied by the learning required to access them.

It is quite simple really, if you had always used computers at school, at home and at work then using them is easy. If you had the times table on the back of your exercise books at school, had only books at home and the computer at work was in the accounts department then you have a lifetime of catching up to do.

Technology interfaces with the user don’t have to be complex, cars are driven much as they have always been, despite having more computer power than a small nation 50 years ago; ebooks are simple to use, games consoles and hand helds are too; so why is a computer so intimidating to anyone approaching them for the first time? Surely technology should be able to make sing them intuitive and simple?

This reminds me of technical instuction leaflets and manuals, once they were written by technical writers and were meant to be idiot proof, now they seem to be written by idiots and designed to be useless. Otherwise why so many help lines?

If the government and the IT industry wants to increase their market then they need to address the requirements of those not yet buying in to the technology and aim products at them rather than trying to sell to a saturated market with extra features the many don’t need and won’t use but must pay for.

And as a final thought to those who say that non users are just lazy, what if you suddenly had to use computers that only worked in Chinese, would you learn that language to continue your use of them? Or would you complain that it just wasn’t worth the effort?

The two real issues are
Broadband speed
Windows Operating systems which are the most deeply flawed products ever sold in the history of the World. No wonder Apple has more cash than the US Government!

I believe that one main problems with PCs is that they are designed as a multipurpose machine.

Using a PC, one can access the Internet, edit and create text documents, edit photographs, create and edit movie films, use it for telecommunications, etc etc.

Over the years manufacturers have, without commercial success, tried to introduce dedicated machines for each of these individual tasks. The only type of computer which appears to have created a successful niche is the games console.

Even the mobile phone has become more complicated as it has taken on the mantle of a small portable personal computer.

If a user wishes to utilise their PC for just one or two tasks; it is possible to make the system simpler by setting up a personalised user interface. But I wonder if the PC industry and retailers are interested in doing this. Keeping the user interface complicated means that they have a nice little earner providing ongoing user support.

BTW – I am a 67 year old silver surfer who worked for 30 years in the computer support industry. Most of this time was spent challenging computer geeks who loved to make things as complicated as possible for the user.

I’m an 88 year new this year to computers with a fairly basic Toshiba laptop.Before getting it I took 2 free ‘taster’ courses at my local library.When on my own what I found an initial problem was not so much the machine but the instruction books that came with it or which I bought for self tuition.Great pictures and details of how to switch on followed by incomprehensible technospeak, or instructions in detail in the ‘for beginners’ series which looked so easy but showed on-screen results which in no way matched what came up on my screen, so it may be the presentation of ‘how to’ do things that is the major problem for those for whom computers are seen at first as a strange black art shrouded in fog.

Many over 65s I personally know AND have heard of flatly REFUSE to join the digital fraternity, not because of impecuniosity (as they can well afford a computer and internet connection) AND despite an offer to set things up for them and teach them how to use, gratis…. these people are too set in their ways to want to change their lifestyle for the better (speaking for myself anyway) OR connect to the internet for a more enlightened experience altogether, if it’s appropriate a term to use.

Those silver surfers or retirees who are connected that I know are mainly those who have had use of the computer in their previous professional or working lives and confined mainly, but by no mean exclusively, to socio-economic groups A, B and C1.

gill says:
6 January 2012

How do they think we have the money to spare for the broadband, should be free for over 65’s.

gill, presumably you pay to receive your radio and television broadcasts, use your telephone and post your letters, so why should broadband be free?

I thought I would join in this discussion you don’t pay for radio reception any longer, if you are over 75 you don’t pay for TV.

Letters cost far too much to send these days so I would use e-mail its free (excepting for broadband).
Now why shouldn’t the retired populace get broadband free, the government want them to get on-line to save money so …

I seem to have missed this one – I’m seem to be the oldest poster on this and have free TV – For the last fifteen years I’ve actually run computer classes (and computer repairs) for my local OAPs club (I’m an OAP computer nerd! 🙂 – I’ve been using computers both analogue and digital since the 1960s including mainframes. I also taught computer studies in a school from the 1980s BBC era.

Many of my ‘clients’ are eager to use computers as they know about the internet and the bargains to be made. Their trouble seemed to be they are intimidated by the ‘youngsters’ trying to help and can’t understand the manuals because they tend to be written for those familiar with computer speak already (the BBC manuals were much clearer.) As I’m older than many – that doesn’t apply. But many do have difficulty grasping the concepts

Interestingly I found a similar reluctance or inhibition with female teachers in the 1980s – particularly the idea that you could break a computer by pressing the wrong keys. whereas the male teachers were far more eager to embrace the technology – but I had a normal teacher’s ability to reduce the problems to easily understood steps which helped..

I really do not accept the idea that broadband should be free to OAPs.

Philip Leon says:
29 May 2012

The money spent on software is wholly, 100% unnecessary. As a coach to silver surfers, I ask them what they want to get out of their computing. Most want the Internet, plus perhaps e-mail. A few want to keep accounts and write letters. A number want to look at photographs sent to them or for them to be able to send to family and friends.
All this is achievable without any software costs, very simply and without hours of tuition. Best of all it rarely suffers from technical issues including trojans, worms and visuses. It is just a matter of showing the client how to get the best results with the simplest of keystrokes.
My oldest client at 88 now banks on-line, and talks to his grand-children on Skype, having never used a computer until 5 years ago. So if he can, anyone can. It just needs a patient coach.

Silver surfers (or anyone for that matter) can save a considerable amount of cash by using a computer for the following:

(i) shopping around for the best value insurance
(ii) benefiting from cheaper onliner taqriffs for gas, electricity etc
(iii) shopping around for best prices when buying goods

For example – today I purchased some rechargeable batteries online, the cost was £6.20 including postage. The cheapest I could have purchased the same item locally was £9.00.

OK – it takes time to shop around, but many silver surfers are time rich and cash poor.

It doesn’t take long to recoup the cost of a computer and bradband charges!

SadeEndablesE says:
4 July 2013

[This comment has been removed due to it being spam.]


Sorry Kermit, just a bit of nonsensical spam to start the day.

Philip says:
4 July 2013

As someone who coaches the older generation, and myself a ‘silver surfer’, I can assure you that once a computer has been set up to meet the needs of the person, and time is taken to explain every step of doing things (I use quick access icons on Linux which does not suffer malware and is FREE) you would be amazed how successful the older person becomes. My oldest? 95 years old. They shop on line to ensure they keep their independence. True it took many visits, but it is so satisfying to see the results!