/ 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.


Alice mentions some of the issues but there are others, for example justified concerns about security and malware.

It is fine to encourage people to use computers, for example by offering better interest rates on accounts, cheaper insurance, etc, but we must respect that not everyone wants to use computers or to use them online.

On the basis that many people do struggle with computers from time to time, even if they have no problems when they are working properly, I believe that there is scope for improvement. People of all ages are taken in by email scams. And so on.

We can debate this until the cows come home but the people who can make a useful input are those who, for whatever reason, will not see this Conversation.


old people should buy a mac then, simple, easy to use and free of virus jiggery-pokery


On the other hand, Macs are very expensive and elderly people may not or be able to afford to buy one, or justify the expensive if it’s for occasional use.

I hope I can still afford to afford to use Macs when I’m on a pension. 🙂

MarkW says:
8 September 2011

We looked at this for a senior member of our family and settled on an ipad – easy to use, instant fire up, light and portable – and they love it. Trouble we found with PC or laptop is that they are more confusing, easy to foul up by pressing wrong button, have too many function that perhaps the silver surfer doesn’t need. Go for an ipad – IMO

PhilT says:
9 September 2011

An appropriately priced tablet computer (ie not an iPad) with a simple interface could make some contribution. Many people struggle to hit a target using a mouse, so a large icon touch display is OK for the operating system but you still need the eyesight and dexterity to hit small links on web pages.


Out of interest what do people think of this website?: http://www.go-on.co.uk/

It’s the new version of what used to be called My Guide, a Government website to help people get online. Obviously the people reading this post already have sufficient computer skills to get online, but I’d be interested to know your thoughts anyway. Do you think it would help you take your first steps?


For someone who’s interests lie elswhere eg gardening or cooking, a computer is about as much use as a chocolate fire guard. We are often told it will make life better if you do it online….
Whooo, lets stop there. Do what on line? What does online mean? How do I surf, ah yes, what does that mean?
Most people who own computers and are familiar with them and their foibles assume a level of knowledge in the non user that is just too high. Investing hundreds of pounds that they can ill afford on something that they dont want and dont understand is a step too far.
How about a television channel that is dedicated to the people who might want to know about computers but have no way of finding out what they need to know. They dont know what they dont know!


@Alice, you ask what do people think about the website;

It’s function is to get people online but firstly you have to be online to get online! Stupid IMHO.

Interface is typical, make it pretty and it will help everyone and ease use, fails miserably as it doesn’t lead you correctly through the whole process.

Let’s start from the premise that They have access to a system at say the library and wish to get online at home, what do they need to know;

1. What is an ISP and why do I need one? How do I choose one? How do I contact them?
2. I need a machine to go on-line, how do I choose the best one for my needs? What types are out there and what are the benefits and cons of each?
3. I’ve got my machine and internet connection, now what do I do?

… You get the drift I think by now.

The biggest criticism of the content is that of the assumption that you need help to use the machine components or parts of the online experience when you haven’t actually got everything setup!

silverthread says:
9 September 2011

I disagree with Duncan Smith. I am 71 years old and very computer literate. I have a PC and an Apple Macbook Pro, the latter is now my main computer. I also have a website, I am on Facebook and Skype regularly with my family. I also have a Kindle which is brilliant with my eyesight not as it used to be. When we get older, we do need a little more time to understand the new technology. I am hoping to get an iphone soon and I know that I will have to study it more carefully and probably ask for some help. We must not dumbdown technology but instead the government should fund classes for older people to attend so that they become more confident. Currently because of the cutbacks, such help is hard to find. I have convinced several of my friends of similar age to invest in a computer and they have done so and a whole new world has opened up for them. We email each other instead of phone. I s