Posted by ajt on Thu 23 Nov 2006 at 13:26
Work had some old desktop PCs going spare and I set one up for my father. Mostly because I didn't want to have to remote admin a Windows machine I decided to install Debian on it.
I started with questions on my LUG mailing list and this gave me ideas and helped me get the configuration close to what I thought my father needed. I gave my father his PC and wrote the experience down on The Linux Box site and now archived permenantly on my web site.
I followed this up with a question here and a talk at a LUG meeting (slides and video) which resulted in a submission to the British Computer Society HCI Group Interfaces Magazine. I'm including the text only here, so it can be indexed as an xhtml file and serve as a discussion start point.
While Debian is viewed as a mostly server-specific distro, I believe that that it can be configured into a perfectly usable desktop system. Additionally I believe that just because a distro is optimised for the desktop, does not mean that it is perfect out of the box.
At Easter in 2005 I gave my 69-year-old father his first computer. I had carefully installed and configured the software especially for him. I had taken care to consider his needs, and had attempted to second guess any problems he may have. I wrote my experience down in an article Desktop Adapted Dad (1), and which I recently presented to my Linux User Group. This short article is a summary of some of the steps I took to optimise my father's computer and some of the observations I made.
My father had never used a computer when I gave him his. He had never worked in an office environment or used a typewriter. Like many people his age his eyesight is not perfect even when corrected, and his glasses are bifocal which does make using a VDU more awkward than normal.
My plan for the computer was to configure it with the smallest set of software necessary to make it function correctly, to greatly simplify the desktop, and to select a visual design that would be clear and unambiguous.
We took the computer to him and showed him how to connect to the Internet, send and receive email, and how to drive the desktop. We spent several days with him, and during this time I continued to adjust the settings to suit his needs.
My first surprise was that what I thought was big and clear, was not anywhere near big or clear enough. Like many long time computer users, I tend to run my computer screen at a high resolution, and use a small font and minimalistic window decorations theme. For my father I had anticipated that my preferences would be hard to read, so I had selected a larger font, and a large clear theme. However, my father found the text too small to read, so I made the fonts even larger. Where I had selected large icons my father preferred extra-large. I had selected a large back pointer, but this did not stand out enough, so I changed this to a huge red pointer which clearly stands out against the background. To my eyes this made the desktop and applications look ugly, but he could use them.
It is obvious to anyone who watches a new user, that using the mouse is quite hard. My father found it hard to move along a drop down menu to select a sub menu. Double-clicking is hard to learn so I configured the desktop to run off single click, but some applications still use double-click, so it could not be totally avoided. To improve his mouse skills we encouraged him to play with the built-in games, he has become quite a fan of Kpatience now. I also stressed that these games were a training aid and not be seen as trivial time wasting toys.
After a few days we left my father with written instructions and returned home.
My father found sending emails useful. Our family is geographically scattered and catching people on the phone is less than ideal. Using email has been an important de-isolating tool for him, and both he and I, have been very pleased with it.
After about a month of using dial-up my father asked if he could change to broadband, as he found dial-up slow and complicated to use. Even after my best attempts I must admit that dial-up is a less than satisfactory solution. Dial-up is not very reliable, it is slow and it is hard to use Internet software with only an intermittent Internet connection. I sent my father a small pre-configured ADSL router in the post, and talked him through how to plug it all in. Then I connected to his PC via the dial-up connection and remotely reconfigured it to use the ADSL router. Now he has no difficulty to connect to the Internet, and he uses the Internet more frequently than before.
An immediate benefit of using a higher speed connection, is that I can now use VNC to see his desktop while he uses it (all the screen shots in this article were taken directly this way). The second benefit is that the telephone line is now free for normal use while my father is connected to the Internet. Together this makes it easier to talk my father through any problems he may have on the phone.
Over the following year my father has continued to make slow steady progress on his own, gradually using the computer more and more. He has also made a number of observations that I found quite striking. My father has no idea what the various icons are or what they are meant to represent, for example, while the envelope may be a popular metaphor for email, it is not that obvious that the image is an envelope or that an envelope would represent electronic mail. He recently asked if it would be possible to check the spelling in his emails, the huge button with "ABC and a tick" on it? simply does not mean anything to him, and he would have never realised what it was for until I showed him what it did.
Many icons don't even represent anything tangible, for example to my father the Mozilla Organization's Firefox logo is a blue and red ball, and in no way represents anything to do with the Internet. He recently asked what the little orange "RSS" logo that appears in the Firefox browser meant. Unless you know, it is hardly obvious what many of the icons stand for - though some are office metaphors, many are arbitrary. It is not that my father is unable or unwilling to learn, it is just that he is cautious, and without any explanation most of the metaphors of modern desktop software are utterly opaque to him.
I set my father's computer up with a GNU/Linux operating system. One basic feature of Linux is that each user has their own login to the system, and normally you do not login to the system as the super-user. This limits what my father is able to do on the system as he is not the super-user. To my surprise my father was delighted that he was restricted in that way, because then he knows that he cannot break the system by accident.
To conclude I would say that my experience with my father and other inexperienced computer users convinces me that the modern desktop software is not obvious but that with basic training it is very easy to use. I firmly believe that anyone can use a computer, but it is essential that users have a properly configured desktop suitable for their use, as one size does not fit all.