What My Mom Taught Me About Technology
The software industry has a user experience crisis on our hands.
My mom hates computers. Always has. Toward the end of her career as a public school teacher, she saw them beginning to appear in classrooms. When she retired before they got to her, she was relieved she had escaped. To her, they were clunky, complicated beige boxes that got between her and her students. The computers were in the way, never worked, and distracted her kids from what they were there for: to learn.
Mom taught remedial reading in the New York City public school system for almost three decades. She was so passionate about literacy because she knew that unless you could read, you wouldn’t be able to navigate the world. Her 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students arrived in her classroom each September reading at 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade levels. Most of her students were from poor and underserved communities, or often came from homes where English wasn’t spoken. In middle school, being unable to read at grade level put a line between those students and other kids their age. Many of these students were embarrassed they had to be in her class.
Over the course of my life, Mom has told me the story a million times: Her mother — my grandmother — journeyed from Sicily to New York City to build a better life. She arrived at Ellis Island in 1905. She was five years old, spoke not a word of English, and when she got off the boat, her head was shaved to check for lice.
Like most women of her generation, Grandma didn’t have the opportunity to get an education, so she lived most of her adult life not being able to read or write anything except to sign her own name. She hid this from my mom until, as a teenager, my mom got suspicious and figured it out. I don’t think they ever talked about it. But when Mom graduated from college, the first woman to do so in my family, Grandma cried and cried, and Mom knew why.
Mom is in her 80s now. Over the years, my siblings and I got her a couple of different home computers, a desktop, and eventually laptops. We’d set the machine up in the basement, sit down, and show her what it could do. She’d smile politely and then ask if we would stay for dinner. The computers would gather dust.
Finally, one Christmas, Mom unwrapped an iPad, looking very confused. My sister said, “Mom, this is the easiest-to-use computer on Earth,” and for the first time in my life, I saw a look of genuine curiosity about a computer on my mom’s face.
Today, my Mom posts Bitmoji in the family Slack workspace, talks to me about the latest series she’s watching on Netflix, videoconferences with her grandkids, borrows e-books from the Brooklyn Public Library via an app, and wants to know why Apple keeps asking her to pay 99 cents a month to keep her photos. She constantly impresses me with how much she’s figured out how to do, largely on her own.
But my mom’s technology journey has also lit a fire in me. She is one of the smartest people I know, and so many things are way too hard and complicated for a smart person to figure out.
Sometimes this just leads to funny questions, like, “Honey, why are all the icons jiggling?” Other snags are annoying inconveniences that keep her from getting stuff done, like she isn’t always sure if her iPhone is prompting her to enter her iCloud password or her Gmail password. Then, if she puts in the wrong one, she gets locked out of her account and has to go through the reset flow. By that point, she is toast and calls me in desperation. (When I try to explain, she glazes over or asks, “Why all these passwords?! This would drive anyone up a wall!!” Hard to disagree.)
Other things, like healthcare app UX, can be a matter of life and death.
When the first appointments for the COVID-19 vaccine opened up, Mom wasn’t able to figure out how to make one, because the user experience of the first sites that became available were so confusing and terrible. I was livid that day as I mashed on my keyboard, making the appointments for her and my other older relatives.
Software is eating the world. Almost all of our everyday interactions are mediated by some sort of digital tool, and as the surface area expands, the user experience crisis gets worse. The best user experiences smooth over complexity and help people get things done without having to think too much. And there are simply too few of them.
My grandma showed my mom how difficult it is to navigate the world without being able to read. My mom shows me how difficult it is to navigate the world without being able to use software. The world needs more truly great, elegant, empowering, easy-to-use digital experiences that help all people live better lives.
Gina Trapani (she/her) is CEO at Postlight. Send her a note at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter.
Story published on Jan 25, 2023.