Why Tech Conversations with Grandpa Matter

Have you ever had a family member ring you up for advice on how to use their phone or computer? That dreaded call from an aunt or grandparent about initiating a Hangouts session or using the printer? The one with questions that seem so obvious to you, that you get frustrated by how long it takes the other party to come around to the solution?

And have you noticed how of late, these questions have been coming your way a little more frequently?

These tech conversations with family are far more than innocuous time sinks or sources of amusement. They are representative of meaningful trends that could impact your life.

Demand for Digital

Let us first understand why these calls might have grown in volume.

If digital access was a luxury previously, it has now become a necessity due to a few factors:

  • Market pressures play a huge role. Everybody wants a cheap cab ride, or groceries that cost 20% lesser than they are at the local store. When you find yourself repeatedly losing out on lower prices that everyone else has access to, that’s when the urge to download the Uber, BigBasket or Instacart app really kicks in.
  • Convenience is, at times, the driving factor. Why wait in line at the bank or the restaurant when you can save hours of your day with a little bit of advance planning?
  • Regulation offers a push at other times. During the recent demonetization drive in India, people were thrust towards digital payment methods like Paytm, whether they liked it or not.
  • Social pressure often follows suit where network effects are involved: those who didn’t have digital wallets during the aforementioned demonetization drive were ushered by their network to join in.

People who might previously have resisted the digital pull now have no choice but to give in.

All UIs/UXs have Notable Learning Curves

Is tech literacy really that difficult to achieve though?

It’s easy to forget that we’ve all struggled to figure out the digital world at some point or the other. I still remember the early days of fiddling around with Windows 95 confused about what DLL errors are, and why my game wouldn’t just load. Those were frustrating (albeit exciting) times — it did take me a while to shake off my wariness and get comfortable.

Fast forward to today — looking at apps and websites through the lens of people who are new to them, I often get glimpses of how difficult these tasks can be. Turns out, entering an address into Uber via Google Maps is a really challenging process, and draws on a lot of prior experience. Think about how you would explain to your grandad the trial-and-error process of entering proper nouns into the destination box, or of picking between two RTO/DMV offices that appear to have nearly identical names. Often, I find myself at loss of words for how to clearly explain the seemingly obvious logic that underlies these systems.

Even when the message gets across, a certain amount of fear of over reliance always lingers in the recipient — “what if I can’t call an Uber and I’m stuck in an area that doesn’t have cabs.”

Security Worries

What does all of this mean for me?

A large group of people are, being pulled towards a digital world on the one hand, and being pressed up against learning barriers on the other. The consequence is that many of these digital newcomers resort to mishmash of make-do poor practices that expose them and their loved ones to harm that they are often not even aware of.

Here are some scenarios that you or someone you know might be exposed to right now:

  • Your mom’s bank password is your name (since you are the apple of her eye). A little bit of social engineering is all that is required for a hacker to make away with her money.
  • Your uncle does not use or even know about 2-factor authentication. And of course, he happens to use the same password for all his digital services. One such service suffers from a hack, and before long, all of your family photos are in malicious hands.
  • Your grandpa has his tax returns stored on his desktop. A visit to a rogue Flash site, and there goes his financial privacy.
  • Your dad had share certificates stored on his desktop. A corrupt hard drive later, he finds that in the absence of backups, he has no way to retrieve his files.
  • Your grandma succumbs to a phishing attack that she doesn’t realize occurred, until the credit card bill comes through a month later.

Even engineers, in my experience, aren’t aware of the best practices for managing passwords, updating software and creating backups. One can only imagine how poor it gets in the general population, especially among newcomers. As payments become increasingly digital and hackers get more sophisticated, these people, and their loved ones by extension, will become increasingly vulnerable to cyber attacks.

Opportunities

Challenges are, however, breeding grounds for opportunities.

Here’s where I think the opportunity in all of this lies:

  • Bridging Apps: Companies that explicitly aim to bridge the afore-mentioned learning barriers could have a lot to gain. An example of this — GoGoGrandparent.com, which aims to make Uber easily accessible to senior citizens!
  • Security Consulting: I foresee a wave of consulting companies that help individuals implement and maintain digital best practices. Imagine your grandad (once again) paying a fixed subscription fee to a local company each month to have his software updated, passwords maintained, backups initiated, issues fixed and more. The safety that this offers could very well be worth a small monthly outlay. When stories of painful hacks spread, those who fear themselves exposed will clamor for such services. And perhaps make those tech conversations a little less painful for you!
  • Voice: As I was teaching my grandad how to use Uber, he wondered out loud if Uber had a call center, just as Fast Track (a call taxi company) did. He wasn’t sure how to express the nuances of his needs — booking a cab with ample luggage space the night before — via the app. Voice was a far more natural system for him. Extrapolating from this sample of one, I think a lot more people would benefit if they had access to powerful voice-based interfaces. (Incidentally, I recently wrote an article about voice in Ecommerce).
  • UX Innovation: Nothing beats a user-experience which connects on a human level. Companies that emphasize intuitive design, simplicity (e.g. babajob.com which requires job-seekers to give a missed call to sign-up) or focused onboarding could have rewards to reap.

Mainstream Internet usage is barely two decades old. A third of those alive today were already in the workforce even before the Internet took root. A large group of these people, Baby Boomers prime among them, haven’t yet embraced their digital lives. Before long though, they will be forced to become digitally integrated. Considering that these people are among the wealthiest segments of the population and often have many decades left to live, the challenges and the opportunities described in this article are likely to be of considerable significance in the coming years.