The need for companies to change their ways

XVI.1 January + February 2009
Page: 32
Digital Citation

LIFELONG INTERACTIONSDesigning senior-friendly living, or why doesn’t my cable work?

Jonathan Lazar

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I like new technology, but I hate when it is forced on me. Even more so, I hate when new technology is forced on my grandparents, who are both 89 years old. I do everything that I can to help them out in their one-story home. I added motion detectors so that lights automatically go on and off. I added handrails in the hallways and grab bars in the bathroom. But I find it harder and harder to keep the technology simple in their house. As a professor of computer and information sciences, I know how much technology can help us. I study usage of technology, but I still don't like when new technology or "upgrades" are nonnegotiable.

A lot of HCI people get excited about the possibilities for new technologies as people get older. The baby boomer generation, as they age, will be more likely to be open-minded to adopting new technologies. I'm sure that in 25 years, people in their 90s will be using handheld computing devices. In the future, grandparents will email their grandchildren. However, I'm not interested in baby boomers or the future. I'm interested in helping my grandparents right now. My grandparents have never used a computer, never sent an email, and aren't interested in doing so.

Comcast, one of two local cable TV providers, recently upgraded four of their channels from analog to digital, without telling any subscribers (I found this out after the fact, in the newspaper). For people with older TVs and no set-top box, suddenly, four channels didn't work. So my grandparents did what any subscriber would do—they called Comcast. The representative said a technician would come out to look at the connection to see what was wrong. I was out of town at a conference, which I now regret. Instead, Comcast came out to install new set top boxes, which require new remote controls. Was this a bit misleading of Comcast? They knew that it wasn't a wiring problem, but didn't tell my grandparents what they were going to do. Yes it was misleading, but I want to talk about usability, not misleading marketing.

My grandparents called me to say their TVs were no longer working. Technically, yes, they were working. However, they were impossible to use. The old setup was cable hooked up directly to TVs, and simple remote controls (which had only nine buttons, all of which were relatively large). No one at Comcast asked them if they wanted this change. No one from Comcast considered how these new remotes would impact on their TV-watching experience. I showed my grandparents how to use the new remote controls, but they said, "it's too complicated, it's not worth the bother." It's understandable: The new remotes are tough to use. There are too many buttons (more than 50), they are very small, and my grandparents can't even read what some of the buttons say. To be honest, I at first had some trouble figuring out how to use the remotes.

So my grandparents stopped watching TV. When I heard that, I was disgusted (with Comcast, not my grandparents). I came back, unplugged the Comcast set-top boxes, and changed their TV setup back to what it was, minus the four channels that they cannot now receive. But at least they are watching TV again.

When the person from Comcast came back to pick up the set-top boxes that my grandparents were no longer using (p.s., they charged for the visit!), I asked him more questions about this change. He explained that customers in our county had gotten used to watching TV channels from both Baltimore and Washington, DC, and they shouldn't have, because it's hard for Comcast to support channels from both cities. He then explained that the set-top boxes in other counties are much easier to use. And that, in many other counties, the customers don't need to go through a program guide first to get to the TV channels, but in our county, they do. I'm really not sure how either of these explanations in any way relates to what happened to my grandparents. Are you saying that they should just start ignoring Washington, DC, news because Comcast says so? Or should they move to Baltimore County, so that they can have an easier-to-use set-top box?

I asked the person from Comcast if they had remote controls that would be easier for older users. He said that he thought that they might, somewhere, but he wasn't sure. He then called his dispatcher, who said that rung a bell but didn't think there were any in stock. So he called someone else, who said they placed an order for a senior-friendly remote. He said he had no idea when it would arrive, because he didn't know where it needed to be ordered from. So they didn't have any in stock, the employees of Comcast didn't know that it was a choice, and they mentioned the senior-friendly remote control only because I pressed them about the availability of one. This might be one of those technically-this-is-possible-but-it-won't-really-happen moments. We're still waiting to hear back from Comcast about the remote. I'm not holding my breath.

As you're reading this, if you know some of the major players in the cable-TV market in my area, you might be thinking, "Jonathan, why don't you just switch them over to Verizon FIOS for their cable service?" Because Verizon requires a very similar set-top box, with another complex remote control. I actually think that the on-screen guides from Verizon have better fonts, but that's really a moot point, because my grandparents refuse to switch to Verizon FIOS. Why? When you switch to Verizon FIOS for cable TV, they change your phone service. Your phone doesn't work like before. If there is a power outage, your phone service doesn't work (which it used to do). Except that Verizon installs a battery backup, so that your phone will work for only eight hours (or something similar) when the power goes out. The idea of not having phone service (or having it work for only a few hours) is incredibly frightening to people in their 80s and 90s. In addition, I think that my grandparents lived through a few long blackouts during their time in New York City. They have said, "absolutely NO changes to our phone service. Period. We simply won't discuss it."

So my thought was to just update them to a TV with a digital tuner (the Comcast worker told me that no TVs have digital tuners, but clearly he was wrong). I tried that, but the four stations that are supposedly in digital did not come through, even with a digital tuner. So it's not just a matter of a digital tuner, maybe Comcast is encoding it somehow so you can only receive the signal with a set-top box? If the TV-with-digital-tuner idea had worked, I would have just purchased a few different remotes (or used older remotes that my grandparents have) and tried to program those older remotes to work with the new TVs." But wait; a new problem has occurred. Comcast recently changed all of its channel numbers. So local channels 11 and 13 (which have been available on 11 and 13 on cable for years) will now be available on 191 and 192 or something similar. I could program those channels as favorites, but to do so, I would need to use the Comcast set-top box and remote control... never mind! And I can see more problems ahead. The transition to broadcast digital TV in the USA is coming in 2009, and I think there are going to be many people who are confused, upset, frustrated, and disappointed.

Clearly, this company, and this industry, doesn't know its users. Think about it. The older someone gets and the more infirmities they have, the more likely it is that they'll be spending time at home, watching TV. The best customers are likely to be customers in their 80s or 90s, who may watch a lot of TV. Don't worry about teenagers. They can figure out how to use a remote control. But customers in their 80s and 90s cannot. It was clear from my experiences that no one at Comcast had thought of this, or really cared. But it's not just the cable companies.

As my grandparents have more trouble walking, I wanted to get them cordless phones. Keep in mind, they have never had cordless phones, nor do they have cell phones. And they refuse to use call waiting, because it's simply considered rude to let someone else interrupt your call. Maybe it's a bit "old school," but that's who they are. Know thy users, right? So I wanted to get simple cordless phones to let them keep a phone nearby. But I can't find cordless phones that fit the bill. Cordless phones now have too many features: The buttons are too small, the displays are too small to read, and they don't easily fit into the charger. Go to the store and try to find a simple cordless phone. You can't. My grandparents couldn't hold these small phones. Or press the buttons.

It can be frustrating at times. I want to find solutions for my grandparents. I want to make life easier for them. I know conceptually how I could solve something—it's not rocket science. But companies are working against me. Stores are working against me. They don't stock the items that I want. Every now and then, I can find something "old school" on eBay that will solve my problem.

Don't tell my grandparents to "get with it." They are with it. Thank goodness, they are still talkative, intellectual, and aware adults. They just don't want to make changes to their TV or phone service. Why should they? Life is challenging enough when you are close to 90 years old. Technology companies shouldn't make life more challenging.

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Dr. Jonathan Lazar is an associate professor in the department of computer and information sciences at Towson University, where he serves as head of the Computer Information Systems undergraduate program and is founder and director of the Universal Usability Laboratory. His most recent authored book is Web Usability: A User-Centered Design Approach, published by Addison-Wesley in 2006, and his most recent edited book is Universal Usability, published by John Wiley and Sons in 2007.

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