Let's enlist seniors to defend simplicity

May 13, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - I am afraid we have to recruit the Greatest Generation for one last mission. I know, I know. They overcame the Depression, won the big war, raised the baby boomers and deserve to rest on their laurels.

But once more into the breach. This time the technological breach. They are needed as a National Guard against creeping complication. They need to be enlisted in defense of simplicity.

My call comes after a long visit with my mother and her TV set. Once upon a time, all she needed to watch TV was an on-off switch. Now she has to coordinate three buttons on two remotes. Worse yet, this TV may well be on its last legs.

I would happily replace it except that new TVs come fully equipped with the options from hell. Watching television now requires the training and skill of a pilot at the controls of an Airbus 300.

We call this progress. We just assume that every younger generation will have to help its elders function in the world of increasing "functions."

The problem is that the manufacturers keep marketing to those 12-year-olds. In the past year, seduced by user-friendly advertising, we bought a digital camera that will, I am told, send wonderful pictures over the Internet. My sister replaced a stove with a convection oven so complex it comes with classes - not in cooking.

It has come to the point where average Americans of average age need tech support just to run their daily lives. Every "upgrade" now downgrades the quality of life. The more functions, the more dysfunctional. We have hit the tipping point where many of us break out in hives at the thought of buying new "stuff." At the current rate of creeping complication, the economy may grind to a halt at DSL speed.

This is where the elder generation comes into play. Or rather, back to work. Which would you rather buy? A new product so simple that "even a 12-year-old can use it"? Or a product so simple that his grandmother can use it?

It's time to draft a random sample of the Greatest Generation to form a national consumer screening board, a kind of technological FDA. Nothing would be allowed onto the market until it passed through their hands and won the Greatest Generation Seal of Approval.

This is not a plea to lower standards, nor is it patronizing. The Greatest Generation has ATM-ed out of one century and is e-mailing into the next. At the same time, they are the canaries in the mine of frustration.

We have learned that every time we simplify life to make it work for our elders, we make it work for the rest of us.

Our new board will indeed set a high standard ... of simplicity. No ad will be able to claim a product "user-friendly" without making friends of these users. To get the Greatest Generation Seal of Approval, any "improved" technology will have to pass at least three tests:

Test One: The product must perform its central purpose - TV-watching, music-listening, cooking, photo-taking, etc. - as easily as the equipment it replaces.

Test Two: Seven out of 10 panel members must be able to read and understand the instructions - no longer than one page (in large type) - without having them translated from the original Geek.

Test Three: Nine out of 10 panel members must be able use the product without calling their grandchildren.

Techies will tell you that this is just a phase we're in. Those with young thumbs and nimble brains will grow up and old in a more gadget-friendly frame of mind. But if history is any guide, they'll also be phased out.

Instead of forcing consumers to fit the equipment, make the equipment fit the consumer. This is not dumbing down, this is simplifying up. And do we ever have the right generation for the right job.

Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa: Uncle Sam Wants You.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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