Family tech support questionnaire

As we become more reliant on technology to support our sheltering-in-place, we realize that many older folks are not quite digital natives and don’t feel comfortable with the now-common computing tasks that many of us have jumped on to handle our lives. And that means that more and more of us have become forced into the de-facto family tech support role. As someone in my generation (60-something) who has been a tech family support nerd for more than half of my life, I wonder how many of you are experiencing this situation?

Supporting our non-tech savvy relatives has gotten harder because now so many of us depend on tech to get through the day. The stakes are higher, and the lack of digital literacy can have much higher consequences these days. So to help you out, let’s start by taking stock of the dimensions of digital literacy that you might encounter.

Herewith is a simple questionnaire to give you some idea of how this will all play out in the time of the lockdown.

  1. Can your family members receive and read an email attachment? This is a basic requirement for many online activities, such as reading recipes and receipts from online orders, obtaining documents and other items. While you may be adept at email, your older generation might have difficulty.
  2. How often does your family member check their email? Many of our family members haven’t developed a regular email habit. This could be generational: older folks never learned touch typing and young ‘uns prefer texting. Without regular email scans, these folks can miss important notifications generated by their other online activities too.
  3. Do you and your spouse share a common email or Facebook account? Many elderly folks like to share accounts, but then who does what and when? If they don’t have a regular email habit, this makes the medium much less effective.
  4. Email isn’t the only connecting tech we all use these days. Does your family member use any common messaging app such as texting, Slack, Facebook Messenger, or WhatsApp? This can be a great way to stay in touch with multiple generations if you can agree on a single family platform. I have seen families that can’t find common ground, which makes communication difficult.
  5. Does your family member own a smartphone and can they install a new app on it? Many elderly have older-model “dumb” phones that date from the last century and don’t do anything other than make and receive phone calls. That can limit their effectiveness. If your elderly member has a more modern phone but still¬† can’t install or configure apps, you’ll have to assign someone for that support role who is located nearby.
  6. Have your family members used Uber or equivalent ride-sharing services? One of the first uses for a smartphone is with mobility: having a ride-sharing service is especially important for those that can’t drive or who don’t have cars. I know plenty of elderly who love their Ubers just as much as millennials. But usually someone has to show them the ropes.
  7. Have your family members done any restaurant curbside pickup or meal delivery? Many restaurants are asking customers to order online or via their smartphone apps. Being able to do this in these lockdown times is a way to help bring a little variety into someone’s life, as long as the family health protocols allow for meal deliveries.
  8. Have you ever read any Twitter posts? Uploaded any Snapchats and Pinterest photos? Often the grandchildren pix are the first mission-critical app for my generation and the learning curve to figure out these social network services can be frustrating.
  9. As we stay at home more, the center of entertainment is the TV, and today’s TVs are really computers in disguise. Does your family member watch any streaming service on their TV, such as Netflix, Hulu, YouTube TV, etc.?¬† Do they know how to set it up? If not, you will have to support that activity. My own smart TV sometimes loses its network connection, and a hard power cycle is the easiest way to fix that. Something is wrong with that.
  10. Let’s talk about paying for various things online. For many elders, cash is still king. I recall how my dad would never leave the house without hundreds of dollars in his pocket. But these days, cash is often not accepted for fear of viral contact. So seeking non-cash methods is important. One of the first things one of my family members did was get help to set up her online bill paying. She liked it and was happy to be rid of the chores of finding stamps and printed checks. Your family members may not be interested in this process, or they may want to dive in further and use contactless payment cards and online payment processors such as PayPal and Venmo to make it easier to move their funds around and send birthday gifts to the grandkids.
  11. The next step is buying all sorts of things online, including groceries and medicines. You might have a lot of support work needed to help your family member figure out where to do their shopping and how to navigate the piss-poor user interfaces of Instacart and others that are barely functioning right now.
  12. The elderly are big library patrons and these days libraries have moved to their digital efforts. Can your family members check out an ebook from their local library, or purchase an ebook for their Kindle? Many elderly would still prefer printed books and newspapers, but can they order them online from their local booksellers?
  13. One of the more popular apps to virtually meet is Zoom, and it is certainly a lot easier to join in a Zoom than some of its competitors. But how about if grandma wants to run her own book club virtually on Zoom? She might need some help getting it all setup.

As you can see, there is a lot of technology to master and manage. Being the family IT support person has gotten a lot more complicated. And as we depend on tech to get us through these times, it can be frustrating for all of us to solve the issues. Just take a step back, see how much tech we have acquired over the years, and take a deep breath.

5 thoughts on “Family tech support questionnaire

  1. Gee, David, I thought I would be taking a survey with yes-no answers. So, my answers to 3 and 9 are no, and the rest yes. How did I do?

  2. Great list. You missed my biggest family IT support hassle – password management. I dread seeing a login screen since I just know it’ll be a password hassle. I cannot get them to give up their local spreadsheets for a real password manager. At least they aren’t using the same password for everything any longer but it means they can’t remember them all. Grrrr.

  3. From my colleague Stavros Macrakis:

    My 93-year-old mother is definitely not a digital native. Her memory is also getting weaker, though she isn’t demented — she might remember that she wants back a book I borrowed from her a few days before, but she can also forget that I returned it to her an hour earlier. She is, however, a fluent typist and has no problem with using a keyboard.

    It was a struggle to get her a device that she could use reliably for simple email. My sister gave her a tablet once, which she never used. In the end, I settled on a Chromebox with only a browser and no other apps. On the home screen, I installed a link to Gmail and to her two favorite newspapers.

    Zeroth problem: it took her a while to understand the idea of moving the cursor and clicking on things.

    First problem: whenever she was on the home screen, she would click on the Gmail link, which would open a new tab in Chrome. After a while, she’d have dozens of Gmail tabs and her machine would choke. I recently discovered a Chrome extension that prevents this, but haven’t tried it yet.

    Second problem: she doesn’t understand attachments.

    Third problem: she doesn’t understand how to search for old email, and doesn’t go to old email to Reply — she just opens a new mail.

    Fourth problem: she doesn’t understand that to see her screen, she needs both the Chromebox and the monitor to be on. This is my most common “tech support” call.

    I have not tried to teach her how to use other apps (Facebook, etc.) — just too confusing.

    We have tried giving her a smartphone, but two things go wrong: 1) she forgets to keep it charged; 2) she loses it. Now that she doesn’t drive any more, (2) is probably less of a problem.

    I have given her a dumb cellphone, but it is far too complicated. To make a call, you have to go through three different menus. Ridiculous!

    Uber would be great for her, but there’s no way that she could master that.

    In trying to teach her how to use her email, I’ve discovered several things:

    1) The multilevel interface really is very complicated. When you’re inside a gmail message, you have a) the OS controls (top-of-screen menu); b) the Window controls (upper right, close window); c) the Chrome controls; d) the tabs; e) the mailbox controls (at the top); f) the folder controls (along the left); g) the message controls (Send, etc.); h) the formatting controls. All of this is intuitive to us digital natives, but when you think about it, it is an amazing amount of cognitive overhead.

    2) She doesn’t understand the notion of mail threading. She thinks of emails the way she thinks of paper mail — each piece of mail is separate.

    3) It takes a very long time to learn something new, and she’ll often forget it.

    4) If anything changes in the UI either because it’s been redesigned, or I changed a configuration, or it’s modal, that confuses her.

    You’d think there would be room in the market for a radically simplified UI for people like her. I just saw the simpl.fyi extension… maybe I’ll try it. That addresses the gmail part of things, though not the OS, Windows, and browser parts….

  4. Relevant topic and useful list, David, thank you. One more would be having the ability to have a telemedicine consult with a healthcare provider.

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