/ Technology

The trouble with touchscreens: will silver surfers get left behind?

A smartphone ringing

Recent developments with smartphone and tablet technology have led to intuitive, easy-to-use interfaces. But not everyone thinks they do a good job, as many find modern devices difficult to get used to.

As far as I’m concerned, I find smartphones and tablets extremely intuitive. They seem to know exactly what I need when I need it.

But a recent BBC report revealed just how impenetrable smartphone and tablet technology can be for some older people.

There’s a huge group of silver surfers out there who are extremely tech savvy. But what about those people who haven’t kept up to date with their tech?

Different by design

Last time we wrote about the issue, the general feeling was that products should simply be better designed for everyone, rather than being simplified and then targeted at older people (like the Doro phone). Many of you promoted the iPad for its straightforward interface. For example, Judith said:

‘If you look at the comparatively easier to use touchscreen technologies like tablets and iPads, which *everyone* finds quicker to start using effectively, then you have your answer right there: we should be designing technology for people of all ages, and bringing this kind of elegant simplicity into the mainstream, rather than attempting to build unnecessarily complicated kit and interfaces which confuse and discourage people of any age.’

But with barely any buttons, it can be hard to work out how to turn on tablets or smartphones, let alone learn how to use them properly. On top of that, technology isn’t always intuitive.

For example, when a call pops up on my phone, I know to pull the phone icon across to the right to answer it. But to someone who has only ever picked up a phone or pressed one button to answer it, how would they know they need to slide the icon to the right?

Taking the first step with tech

My sister will be living abroad next year and in anticipation of this, we bought my mum a tablet so she could keep in touch via Skype. She openly admits that she isn’t great with technology. But once we’d explained the basics and had given a quick demo, she was off and running like a seasoned pro.

My mum showed me that, for older people, it isn’t a question of capability – but more just a question of getting started. So should we be doing more to help older people understand new technology? Or should tech for older people be made different by design?


The inference that older people (except those with failing faculties) are somehow incapable of dealing with technology is somewhat insulting. Plenty of silver haired people have perfectly adequate intelligence, lots of experience and are probably better educated than today’s younger generation (in the days when GCEs, colleges and universities meant something). And in the years since computers and mobile phones became widely used, they’ve probably had loads of experience of using them – properly – and not for games, interminable texting and social netrworking.

I suspect what holds back some of the wise generation is the confidence to tackle new techologies – whereas younger people pick it up from school lessons and from their peers. Once they grasp the fundamentals they are off like a shot.

What do you think, are the oldies backward?

Malcolm, I really doubt that it’s because older people are ‘incapable’. I would suggest it’s more out of hesitation and an avoidance of such technology.

Those who embrace it will get on fine, I reckon!

Most of the silver surfers who have been left behind have probably been avoiding technology for many years or have developed a sight or other problem that makes it difficult to cope.

Hopefully those who have made a start when they were younger will continue to use technology and learn new skills as they grow older. Peer support works just as well between older people as it does with teenagers.

I dislike using a touch screen to type. My fingers are too big and a “prodder” takes too long. That’s why I have a phone with a slide out keyboard. It also has a touch screen to swipe, pinch and prod icons. Seems like a good combination. For me, technology is there when I want it. If I think it is going to be useful, I’ll learn about it and use it. I don’t have a tablet, e.reader, play station, note book or lap top because I don’t need them. My phone gives me access to the internet when out and about and anything else is done at home. This doesn’t mean that I’m afraid of new trends – (I subscribe to Which Computing) but there’s no point having the latest gadgets sitting around doing nothing either.

It’s a very valid point about disliking the use of a touch screen. Not everyone gets on and some devices are better than others. I really disliked touch screens because of a poor experience with an old phone but have since fallen in love with my iPhone because it’s a lot better, knowing where I am trying to click.

That said, some of the most advanced and up-to-date Samsung’s seem to disagree with my finger so would put me right off!

Perhaps controversial, but I do feel that we can’t let technophobes stop the release of intuitive technology.

My father for example resisted the idea of a laptop or smart phone several years ago but finally made the upgrade from a barely colour Nokia brick to an iPhone 4S last year and he gets on with it no trouble at all. The only issues he has is transferring his music via iTunes but I think even the best of us struggle with that sometimes!

I am just turned 80 years and have just bought an Asus Transformer tablet. I have had desktop for a long time and an Acer netbook for about 5 years and my phone is a Galaxy Ace. I enjoy the challenge of finding out all the myriad of things one can do with these technical gadgets. The tablet is a bit of a challenge today – and remembering passwords for different sites I have used on my other gadgets that I want to use on the laptop is at the moment my biggest headache! Memory is my biggest trouble as I have aged. I find out how to do something and then can’t remember the next time!

I have friends much younger than me who won’t even use a mobile phone. Some of them are still using videos instead of dvds and have no idea that you can record tv programmes.

My body does not let me do all the things I would like to do and used to do. I cannot excercise as it is too painful, but I enjoy excercising my brain and hopes that will keep me young at heart if not body!

par ailleurs says:
23 December 2012

How heartening to read that from groovygranny58. It just goes to show that it’s an attitude problem not inherent lack of abilty that keeps some older folk from trying new technologies. All this of course is assuming that they have the financial ability to keep up with things. I shudder to remember all those ghastly old house brick phones and videos and cassettes and analogue TV and…

As a so-called ‘silver surfer’ I have been in technology all my working life, and I’m particularly savvy to computing, going back to the early days of the Internet (no Web then) and cutting my teeth on the early Sinclairs, Ataris, and of course the famous Commodore Amiga. Of course, dramatic changes came when Sir Tim Berners Lee created the first Website in 1991, a little ahead of the Americans. I think that the keyboard and mouse will not die easily, as over the years, they have proved the easiest way to navigate anything HTML. Things like touch screens are okay for anyone not savvy to Qwerty, or Azerty keyboards, but with ‘touch’ devices I detest looking at a virtually blank black screen, and trying to find out how to bring it to life, and even if you find a touch keyboard it is invariably set up for ‘predictive text’, which I detest, as I can spell and touch type without the need for this innovation. Trying to find out how to turn predictive text off can be a nightmare! Possibly the best method for communication would be by speech recognition, which is quite advanced now, but would not be suitable for an office envirnment. Give me mouse and a standard physical keyboard anyday!

Peter says:
1 November 2013

At 67 I have been using heart monitors and other technology for years but only had a pc at home. Retired and bought a Tab 3 and a smart phone. I cannot find any literature on either that is written how I can understand. It seems too basic or skips the basics so I’m left with a gap in knowledge or many unanswered questions. Any suggestions very welcome. The USA seem to do courses for oldies but cannot find anything in England.

Good book shops everywhere carry books like “Android Phones for Dummies”.

These books can be very illuminating for those of us raised on “when all else fails, read the instructions”.

Personally, I like to use nice cheap Android smartphones. Nonetheless,I think Android apps are mostly very annoying, because there don’t seem to be any conventions on how the user interfaces should be designed. Hence, finding out how to do some stuff ends up being a game of hide and seek.

In contrast, Blackberry’s “button box” phones seemed to have clearly laid out “button friendly” rules for how to navigate within apps.

Simon says:
26 March 2017

My mother uses a Doro Mobile phone as she is scared of tech… she however loves this as it is so easy to use and it helps her along the way
Does anyone know of any tablets that are similar?

This comment was removed at the request of the user

Our local U3A [University of the Third Age] branch has a ‘tech group’ where people can learn how to use devices and solve problems in a friendly and supportive manner. I believe many U3A branches have similar groups. U3A branches also do lots of other things to enrich people’s lives after retirement.