Desktop Adapted for Dad (DAD)

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.

Desktop Adapted for Dad (DAD) 2

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.

  • Version 1.02 / Novemeber 2006.
  • This article has been published in the British HCI Group Interfaces Magazine, Issue 67 Summer 2006.
  • As ever, many thanks to the many people who have helped, in particular V. E. Kerguelen and L. Cowen.

 

 


Posted by Anonymous (192.76.xx.xx) on Thu 23 Nov 2006 at 17:24
So did I miss the screen shots? I am impressed, my father is also 60ish and he begged me to teach him Linux because he was tired of MS. I did and he took to it like a fish in water, of course he has been using computers for 30 years and is the reason I like them so much.

Cheer for dad!!

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Posted by ajt (84.12.xx.xx) on Thu 23 Nov 2006 at 20:32
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Screen shots are in the linked PDF. However the point is I did what my dad wanted, your needs may be different.

--
"It's Not Magic, It's Work"
Adam

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Posted by Anonymous (82.152.xx.xx) on Thu 23 Nov 2006 at 17:52
I think that's a good thing you did for your father - you sound like an extremely patient, thoughftul person, and it's encouraging to hear that through you, your father is slowly coming to terms with his PC.
Your article provides much food for thought for me, as I try to slowly introduce my wife and children to the wonderful world of computing in general, and Linux in particular.

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Posted by ajt (84.12.xx.xx) on Thu 23 Nov 2006 at 20:37
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I know what happens if you throw people in at the deep end - it's not pretty!

I thought it I could second guess my father and set the PC up for him, he would have a chance of learning at his own pace without having to worry.

As a result the number of support calls I've had from him has been very small, less than I had expected.

--
"It's Not Magic, It's Work"
Adam

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Posted by Anonymous (59.178.xx.xx) on Thu 23 Nov 2006 at 18:46
Yup, done the same sort of thing for my Dad and Dad-in-law

1. customise the system so that it is simplified. eg: icewm and reduce the menus, use the simplest, friendliest apps.
2. use big fonts, and big cursor (hint: apt-get install big-cursor)
3. use remote login (vnc etc for fixing remotely)
4. set it up for non-root use so he can do it all (sudo etc).

PJ

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Posted by medwayman (82.69.xx.xx) on Thu 23 Nov 2006 at 21:04
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"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."

Any chance of him getting varifocals? The close field of view through bifocals is usually very narrow, making it impossible to see the whole of a 1280x1024 screen at once - you need to look at either one part or another.

Old age caught up with me a while ago and I now wear varifocals. I definitely use the part of the lens that is midway between distant and near to see the whole screen at once.

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Posted by ajt (84.12.xx.xx) on Thu 23 Nov 2006 at 21:33
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Ironically my father use to use two pair of glasses, one for distance and one for reading. If he was still using the reading pair I'm sure using the computer would be much easier.

I shall mention to my father that varifocals may be better than plain bifocals next time he replaces his glasses.

It's all to easy to miss the problems other users may face. It's easy to accomodate most people but only if you bother to take the time to think about it. I thought I had done a good job until I delivered the PC when I found out how different my father and I are.

--
"It's Not Magic, It's Work"
Adam

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Posted by Anonymous (82.170.xx.xx) on Fri 24 Nov 2006 at 19:57
Nice article, it clearly shows too that to get the desired results, you need to " train" people.
Your dad is far better then a teacher friend of mine. After I had installed Ubuntu for him, he let me remove it and put a pirated copy of windows on it. This was his second pc so I guess he must have been really sick with ubuntu.

But then again, I didn't "train" my friend well too....I guessed I must have fallen for the "linux for human beings" marketing talk form ubuntu:-)

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Posted by ajt (84.12.xx.xx) on Fri 24 Nov 2006 at 21:35
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It's a combination of setting the system up the way my dad wanted, and training him on how to use it rather than letting him sink or swim on his own.

As I've said here and else where, when you introduce someone to Linux the distro doesn't make any difference, the support they get does. My father could be running Slackware or Linspire, he wouldn't know the difference. All he knows is I connect to it and keep it upto date, and show him how to do things when he asks.

There are a few comments on the LXer covering the article and I'll direct anyone there rather than repeat myself, but part of the reason for posting this on a Debian Administration site is to say that it's the administrator that makes the difference!

* http://lxer.com/module/forums/t/24131/
* http://www.debian-administration.org/articles/159
* http://www.debian-administration.org/articles/160

--
"It's Not Magic, It's Work"
Adam

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Posted by Anonymous (204.233.xx.xx) on Sat 25 Nov 2006 at 14:59
Two months ago I set up an aging PIII 450 I had sitting around with Ubuntu Dapper and sent it to my dad. He last used a computer 6 years ago and it was Windows 95. He adjusted very quickly to Ubuntu and has been playing around a lot. The only problem I've run into is that he wanted to use AutoCAD (he's a carpenter/architect) and he only had a demo version that would not run under Wine. I've been trying to get him set up with QCad, but he's on a modem and the 3 hour download has problems. I need to just burn the .deb to a CD and send it to him. Luckily he has a friend with an architecture firm that will let him come down to the office and use real CAD stations (better for everyone). Otherwise he's picked up IM, firefox and thunderbird very quickly, and recently purchased a used camera on eBay without any help from me. In all I'd say it's been a good experience for him. He's proud to tell people that he's running Linux :).

Derek

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Posted by ajt (84.12.xx.xx) on Sat 25 Nov 2006 at 19:47
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My father PC is a PII-266!

When I deployed my father's system he was on 56k dial-up, and it was to say the least a pain for both of us. He quickly asked to go to ADSL, and I got found him a sensible deal with my ISP. I sent him a preconfigured ADSL router, and after some careful changes to routing tables his machine swicted from dial-up to ADSL via ethernet.

Now he has an 8Mb-ADSL pipe which is good for aptitude update && aptitude upgrade and VNC.

My father hasn't been as adventerous as yours but he is happy with email, does a little surfing and is very happy with card games!

--
"It's Not Magic, It's Work"
Adam

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Posted by Anonymous (82.76.xx.xx) on Sun 26 Nov 2006 at 11:46
Small world, isn't it? http://blog.360.yahoo.com/blog-Vdrx7eU3fqovesPu9Y8Y?p=21

But really, I often wondered how one could go about making computer usage intuitive. You seem to have taken great steps in that direction; I'll try to learn from what you did. Lesson number 1: to always set things up for a real user, not an ideal one from my imagination. Lesson number 2: to be flexible. Lesson number 3: we still have a lot to learn about human-computer interaction.

Cheers,
Felix

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Posted by ajt (84.12.xx.xx) on Sun 26 Nov 2006 at 16:18
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You seemed to have suffered quite a bit.

* I thought "I know Debian", so Debian is what I'll use.
* Debian out of the box isn't for my dad, so I'll guess what he wants not what I want.
* I showed it to my dad and did additional configuration.

It sounds like you started from the premis that the distro matters, therefore chose a newbie/desktop freindly one. I really don't believe that the distro matters, what you know is what makes the difference.

While Mandriva/ubuntu/Xandros/Linspire et al. may be fine distos, I don't know them, I can't set them up easily and they are harder for me to support.

One football manager/coach once told a top player to practice what he was good at, not what he was bad at. There is some logic on building on your strengths rather than trying to patch up your weaknesses.

Good luck with your father!

--
"It's Not Magic, It's Work"
Adam

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Posted by Anonymous (67.88.xx.xx) on Mon 27 Nov 2006 at 17:36
It's very true that you have to customize the system for the user. It's funny how you think that everybody has the same needs you do until you find out the hard way. When I first got into computers I went to my parents house and they had to 2 computers and I networked them together. Well long story short it pretty much was a waste of time as I did not teach them enough about the benefits and at the time they really did not have a need. On the positive note I learned more since I was just getting into my career but not much of gift as I anticipated.

One of the reasons why I have not moved more family members to Linux is because I am worried about third party devices like camera's and what not but it's good to hear that its really not much of a problem.

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Posted by ajt (84.12.xx.xx) on Mon 27 Nov 2006 at 18:56
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Customisation is the key. Any tool no matter how perfect is no use if it's the wrong tool!

I think for many basic tasks Linux is a better option that Windows for a most computer users. The areas where Linux fails are:

1) Commercial software. If you have to use commercial package "foo" then it's almost certainly not available for Linux. Often there is a workable free/open alternative, but that's no help if it must be "foo".

The obvious weak area is commercial games. Though to be honest you are probably better off with a console than a computer anyway!

2) Laptops can be a pain. Most hardware support in Linux is as good if not better than Windows for many common devices. Laptop computers are notorious for including proprietary widgets and no documentation. It is better than it use to be, but always be careful with laptops.

You shouldn't have any problems now with digitcal cameras and other common consumer electronic devices.

3) CODECs. Some CODECs are legally encumbered and so some distros do not ship with them, so adding them back may be messy. Most people don't care about many of them, but it is nice to be able to playback DVDs and listen to MP3s straight out of the box...

4) Viruses and malware. Microsoft Windows has far more viruses and malware than anyother operating system, at least two orders of magnitude. Don't put someone on Linux if they expect to be virus infected all the time!

My father didn't want any fancy commercial software, all the hardware worked out of the box, he doesn't watch films or listen to music on his PC (though he could if he wanted) and he didn't want any viruses - even free ones...!

--
"It's Not Magic, It's Work"
Adam

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