[guispeak] Fwd: Adapting PCs to an aging population

  • From: Andy Baracco <wq6r@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: guispeak@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 31 Jan 2005 21:35:56 -0800

Adapting PCs to an aging population
The Boston Globe
Monday, January 31, 2005
By Hiawatha Bray
We fret too much about computer viruses, spam e-mails, and buggy software, and too little about a high-tech trauma that eventually afflicts us all -- shrinking text.

Take a good look at the words on your computer screen. They may be smaller and harder to read than they were a year ago -- and if not, they someday will be.

Of course, the text isn't getting smaller; your eyes are getting weaker. It's a normal consequence of aging and happens to nearly everybody. Which makes you wonder why computer programmers assume that everybody on earth possesses 20-year-old eyeballs. Just look at the standard type settings for, say, Microsoft Word. The default setting is barely legible to my 48-year-old eyes; pity the man or woman pushing 70. Decaying vision isn't the only worry, either. Try working a keyboard or mouse with arthritic fingers.

Why should we care? Because nearly all of us will join their company someday. The vast baby boom generation is now well into its fifth decade; we're becoming the old coots we used to rail against. And according to the Media Audit, a Texas research firm, a quarter of all Internet users in the United States are 50 or older. Seniors are embracing the Internet faster than any other age group, and 36 percent of people between 65 and 74 are online.

And not all of them are in rocking chairs. According to the US Labor Department, 13 percent of the US workforce was 55 or older in 2000, and the percentage of older workers is expected to keep rising. For many of them, work means peering at a computer screen that gets harder to read by the week.

Computer firms have already done a lot to address the problem. For years, Microsoft Corp., IBM Corp., and others have built features into their products to make them more easily usable by disabled people. There are ways to easily blow up type sizes and change screen colors and contrast settings. For people who find it hard to click a mouse or press the Control key, software can be programmed to offer easier alternatives. If you're blind, your computer can read on-screen text out loud. Microsoft's Windows XP and Apple Computer Inc.'s Mac OS X operating systems both contain simple screen readers at no extra charge.

Until recently, these special features and products were mainly pitched to disabled people. But companies have at last begun to focus on the far larger population of people who've just gotten old.

IBM, for instance, has introduced Home Page Reader, a $149 Windows program that's more sophisticated than the standard Windows screen reader. Home Page Reader can enunciate the text of a website, as well as magnifying the words. Developed for blind users, IBM is now marketing it to seniors who haven't lost their sight, but just need some reading assistance. To sample a trial version of the program, go to

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is an aging boomer, which might explain why his company takes this issue so seriously. Madelyn Bryant McIntire, director of Microsoft's Accessible Technology Group, said the next version of Windows will automatically identify users who need extra help. "Everyone will be asked some basic questions" when installing the software, said McIntire. For instance, "would you like us to show you how to make it easier to see your computer?" Answer yes, and Windows will guide the user as he tries out different type sizes, colors, and contrast settings.

It will also test the user's comfort level with a keyboard. People who find it hard to hold down the Control key while pressing some other key will be offered a feature that makes the Control key "sticky," so it stays active after a single tap. When the questionnaire is complete, Windows will remember all of the settings, so the computer is customized to the user's needs.

Ironically, font enlargement, color changes, and sticky keys are already built into Windows, but few ever set them up. It's not just a lack of training. Sometimes, it's an excess of pride, as McIntire learned after doing a survey to learn why so few seniors use the sticky keys feature.

"They weren't using it because it was hidden under an icon with a wheelchair on it," she said. The image symbolizes disability, and many users didn't see themselves that way. "There's a sort of denial among boomers," said McIntire. You won't see a wheelchair image in the next version of Windows, codenamed Longhorn. But it's not expected to debut until 2007.

Until then, Microsoft is relying on an informational campaign based at
Click on the "Baby boomers" link for tips on creating an age-appropriate version of Windows.

Software creators aren't the only businesses catering to older people. Touchtown Inc. of Pittsburgh, at
is an Internet service provider that offers a senior-friendly interface, with large type sizes and easy access to e-mail and news headlines. Touchtown charges $14.99 a month for unlimited access or as little as $4.99 a month for users on a budget. The company also sells Internet access to senior housing developments and assisted-living facilities.

Still, there's plenty more to be done. Bill Gribbons, founder of the Design and Usability Center at Bentley College, notes that merely installing and using new software can be a major trial for people with fading memories. "A lot of interaction with technology products . . . requires you to remember where you've been, where you want to go, what your goals are," Gribbons said. "As we work with aging participants we see that they very easily become disoriented." The solution, he said, is simplicity. Instead of serving up hundreds of features, a good program should conceal its more advanced settings, leaving just enough functionality to get the job done.

There's a vast market for senior-friendly software, and the industry has barely gotten started. When they get it right, let's hope we'll still be around to enjoy it.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at

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