Does Google Hate Old People?

Originally posted February 11, 2016. Reposted today after a weekend of struggling to support a variety of older and not-so-old users via Chrome Remote Desktop.

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No. Google doesn’t hate old people. I know Google well enough to be pretty damned sure about that.

Is Google “indifferent” to old people? Does Google simply not appreciate, or somehow devalue, the needs of older users?

Those are much tougher calls.

I’ve written a lot in the past about accessibility and user interfaces. And today I’m feeling pretty frustrated about these topics. So if some sort of noxious green fluid starts to bubble out from your screen, I apologize in advance.

What is old, anyway? Or we can use the currently more popular term “elderly” if you prefer — six of one and half a dozen of another, really.

There are a bunch of references to “not wanting to get old” in the lyrics of famous rock stars who are now themselves of rather advanced ages. And we hear all the time that “50 is the new 30” or “70 is the new 50” or … whatever.

The bottom line is that we either age or die.

And the popular view of “elderly” people sitting around staring at the walls — and so rather easily ignored — is increasingly a false one. More and more we find active users of computers and Internet services well into their 80s and 90s. In email and social media, many of them are clearly far more intelligent and coherent than large swaths of users a third their age.

That’s not to say these older users don’t have issues to deal with that younger persons don’t. Vision and motor skill problems are common. So is the specter of memory loss (that actually begins by the time we reach age 20, then increases from that point onward for most of us).

Yet an irony is that computers and Internet services can serve as aids in all these areas. I’ve written in the past of mobile phones being saviors as we age, for example by providing an instantly available form of extended memory.

But we also are forced to acknowledge that most Internet services still only serve older persons’ needs seemingly begrudgingly, failing to fully comprehend how changing demographics are pushing an ever larger proportion of their total users into that category — both here in the U.S. and in many other countries.

So it’s painful to see Google dropping the ball in some of these areas (and to be clear, while I have the most experience with the Google aspects of these problems, these are actually industry-wide issues, by no means restricted to Google).

This is difficult to put succinctly. Over time these concerns have intertwined and combined in ways increasingly cumbersome to tease apart with precision. But if you’ve every tried to provide computer/Internet technical support to an older friend or relative, you’ll probably recognize this picture pretty quickly.

I’m no spring chicken myself. But I remotely provide tech support to a number of persons significantly older — some in their 80s, and more than one well into their 90s.

And while I bitch about poor font contrast and wasted screen real estate, the technical problems of those older users are typically of a far more complex nature.

They have even more trouble with those fonts. They have motor skill issues making the use of common user interfaces difficult or in some cases impossible. Desktop interfaces that seem to be an afterthought of popular “mobile first” interface designs can be especially cumbersome for them. They can forget their passwords and be unable to follow recovery procedures successfully, often creating enormous frustration and even more complications when they try to solve the problems by themselves. The level of technical lingo thrown at them in many such instances — that services seem to assume everyone just knows — only frustrates them more. And so on.

But access to the Net is absolutely crucial for so many of these older users. It’s not just accessing financial and utility sites that pretty much everyone now depends upon, it’s staying active and in touch with friends and relatives and others, especially if they’re not physically nearby and their own mobility is limited.

Keeping that connectivity going for these users can involve a number of compromises that we can all agree are not keeping with ideal or “pure” security practices, but are realistic necessities in some cases nonetheless.

So it’s often a fact of life that elderly users will use their “trusted support” person as the custodian of their recovery and two-factor addresses, and of their primary login credentials as well.

And to those readers who scream, “No! You must never, ever share your login credentials with anyone!” — I wish you luck supporting a 93-year-old user across the country without those credentials. Perhaps you’re a god with such skills. I’m not.

Because I’ve written about this kind of stuff so frequently, you may by now be suspecting that a particular incident has fired me off today.

You’d be correct. I’ve been arguing publicly with a Google program manager and some others on a Chrome bug thread, regarding the lack of persistent connection capability for Chromebooks and Chromeboxes in the otherwise excellent Chrome Remote Desktop system — a feature that the Windows version of CRD has long possessed.

Painfully, from my perspective the conversation has rapidly degenerated into my arguing against the notion that “it’s better to flush some users down the toilet than violate principles of security purity.”

I prefer to assume that the arrogance suggested by the “security purity” view is one based on ignorance and lack of experience with users in need, rather than any inherent hatred of the elderly.

In fact, getting back to the title of this posting, I’m sure hatred isn’t in play.

But of course whether it’s hatred or ignorance — or something else entirely — doesn’t help these users.

The Chrome OS situation is particularly ironic for me, since these are older users whom I specifically urged to move to Chrome when their Windows systems were failing, while assuring them that Chrome would be a more convenient and stable experience for them.

Unfortunately, these apparently intentional limitations in the Chrome version of CRD — vis-a-vis the Windows version — have been a source of unending frustration for these users, as they often struggle to find, enable, and execute the Chrome version manually every time they need help from me, and then are understandably upset that they have to sit there and refresh the connection manually every 10 minutes to keep it going. They keep asking me why I told them to leave Windows and why I can’t fix these access problems that are so confusing to them. It’s personally embarrassing to me.

Here’s arguably the saddest part of all. If I were the average user who didn’t have a clue of how Google’s internal culture works and of what great people Googlers are, it would be easy to just mumble something like, “What do you expect? All those big companies are the same, they just don’t care.”

But that isn’t the Google I know, and so it’s even more frustrating to me to see these unnecessary problems continuing to persist and fester in the Google ecosystem, when I know for a certainty that Google has the capability and resources to do so much better in these areas.

And that’s the truth.

–Lauren–

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4 thoughts on “Does Google Hate Old People?”

  1. In the same vein, Google recently pushed an update for the windows chrome product that eliminated the web browsing functionality of the backspace key, which used to let you go back to the previously displayed page. You want screaming oldsters, that got screaming oldsters … including me.

    I finally tracked it down to a smug developer note about improving compatibility with some international standards document that my ninety year old auntie DOES NOT CARE ABOUT. The replacement functionality is a two-key combo that she finds physically difficult AND impossible to remember. ALT-left-arrow, but of course left-arrow is not in a standard position on all keyboards, it’s not extra-big like backspace buttons usually are, and it often shares a key with something else, like a toggled numlock key. So there’s really no way I can advise her on it when I’m not in the room with her.

    Months later and my own automatic muscle memory is finally starting to kick in. But the sheer callous disregard for usability — combined with the preferencing of some evolving standards document over actual user needs — is still infuriating.

  2. As an older woman who has extensive knowledge and experience in Cybersecurity, I had applied to Google. No, I wasn’t hired. But, I do know who was hired for the position. A young male who had just graduated college, with no experience in any field (his first job). I also had applied to Coastline Community College’s Cybersecurity Dept. No, I didn’t get the job. I do know who got the job. A young male who is in his first semester at UCI, with no experience in any field either. With organizations and companies that claim they do not discriminate, well, it’s just lip service.

  3. FWIW, I teach web page design at a community college, and am constantly harping on the importance of adequate contrast and readability in general. I’m a Google Project Fi subscriber, and I finally called their support line last week (yes, they publish a phone number and real people answer!) to complain about the unreadability of the monthly bill, because of a very thin font with low contrast. The person at the other end did commiserate a bit, admitting that he has problems reading his pay stub. I guess we just need to keep complaining politely until they get the message.

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