On reading, the aging population, and your mum

Your mum is not a focus group. Credit: swissmiss’ Instagram

So I just finished reading Oliver Sacks’ book of essays called Everything In Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (of which I just talked about in the previous post). Another essay of his, called Reading the Fine Print caught my attention. Sacks started by telling about his frustration when he asked for a large print book of his published copy due to his vision impairment, but being told he will no longer have access to them, because, other technology happens:

I have just had a new book published, but I am unable to read it because, like millions of others, I have impaired vision. I need to use a magnifying glass, and this is cumbersome and slow because the field is restricted and one cannot take in a whole line, let alone a paragraph, at a glance. What I really need is a large-print edition, one that I can read (in bed or in the bath, where I do most of my reading) like any other book. Some of my earlier books existed in large print editions, invaluabble when I was asked to give a public reading. Now I am told a printed version is not “necessary”; instead, we have e-books, which allow us to blow up the size of the type as much as we want.

But I do not want a Kindle or a Nook or an iPad, any one of which could be dropped in the bath or broken, and which has controls I wold need a magnifying glass to see. I want a real book made of paper with print — a book with heft, with a bookish smell, as books have had for the last 550 years, a book that I can slip into my pocket or keep with its fellows on my bookshelves, where my eye might alight on it at unexpected times.

He also voiced his frustration at the quality of large-print books available these days, and while I might not agree about the definition of ‘quality’ books according to Sacks, this is still something new I learned about:

They did have a (small) large-print section, but it consisted mostly of how-to books and trashy novels. They were no collections of poetry, no plays, no biographies, no science. No Dickens, no Jane Austen, none of the classics — no Bellow, no Roth, no Sontag. I came out frustrated, and furious: did publishers think the visually impaired were intellectually impaired too?

I have always been more of a reader than a listener, which is why I don’t do well with audiobooks despite being told I can still ‘read’ while doing other tasks (another notion I don’t quite agree: multitasking). Sacks explains it very well:

But there is fundamental difference between reading and being read to. When one reads actively, whether using the eyes or a finger, one is free to skip ahead or back, to reread, to ponder or daydream in the middle of a sentence — one reads in one’s own time. Being read to, listening to an audiobook, is more passive experience, subject to the vagaries of another’s voice and largely unfolding in the narrator’s own time.

Sacks ends the essays by talking about how other people form unique neural pathways in the process of reading — “some people may “hear” the sounds as they do, some may visualise them, some may be acutely aware of the acoustic rhythms or emphases of a sentence; others more aware of its looks or its shape” — and with a quote by George Bernard Shaw, “books as the memory of the race”, citing that writing should be accessible in as many formats as possible. Which means that, if one asks you for a large-print book especially out of some impairments, you should be able to accommodate one instead of saying “get a Kindle.”

I have been thinking a lot about elderly-friendly technologies especially after reading this Buzzfeed article on how the elderly are often the first targets when it comes to misinformation.

Since the 2016 election, funding for digital literacy programs has skyrocketed. Apple just announced a major donation to the News Literacy Project and two related initiatives, and Facebook partners with similar organisations. But they primarily focus on younger demographics, even as the next presidential election grows closer.

This means the very people who struggle the most with digital information and technology risk being left to fend for themselves in an environment where they’re being targeted and exploited precisely because of their vulnerabilities.

Older people are also more likely to vote and to be politically active in other ways, such as making political contributions. They are wealthier and therefore wield tremendous economic power and all of the influence that comes with it. With more and more older people going online, and future 65-plus generations already there, the online behaviour of older people, as well as their rising power, is incredibly important — yet often ignored.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle for the aging population on using the contemporary technologies wisely is not because the existing features are hard for them to comprehend, but the makers (designers, developers, businesses, etc.) are deliberately designing them in a way that it is hard to comprehend. We have always been working on child-friendly technologies, it is time we work on elderly-friendly technologies.

(P/s: And when you design something, please stop saying “design it so easy your mum could understand it!” because first, she belongs to her very own focus group(s), and second, stop underestimating your own mum.)

Comments 2

  1. Pingback: Why we should design for our 73-year-old self – Two Kinds of Intelligence

  2. Pingback: The axiom of zero – Two Kinds of Intelligence

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