How Some Software Designers Don’t Seem to Care About the Elderly

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One of the most poignant ironies of the Internet is that at the very time that it’s become increasingly difficult for anyone to conduct their day to day lives without using the Net, some categories of people are increasingly being treated badly by many software designers. The victims of these attitudes include various special needs groups — visually and/or motor impaired are just two examples — but the elderly are a particular target.

Working routinely with extremely elderly persons who are very active Internet users (including in their upper 90s!), I’m particularly sensitive to the difficulties that they face keeping their Net lifelines going. 

Often they’re working on very old computers, without the resources (financial or human) to permit them to upgrade. They may still be running very old, admittedly risky OS versions and old browsers — Windows 7 is going to be used by many for years to come, despite hitting its official “end of life” for updates a few days ago.

Yet these elderly users are increasing dependent on the Net to pay bills (more and more firms are making alternatives increasingly difficult and in some cases expensive), to stay in touch with friends and loved ones, and for many of the other routine purposes for which all of us now routinely depend on these technologies.

This is a difficult state of affairs, to say the least.

There’s an aspect of this that is even worse. It’s attitudes! It’s the attitudes of many software designers that suggest they apparently really don’t care about this class of users much — or at all.

They design interfaces that are difficult for these users to navigate. Or in extreme cases, they simply drop support for many of these users entirely, by eliminating functionality that permits their old systems and old browsers to function. 

We can certainly stipulate that using old browsers and old operating systems is dangerous. In a perfect world, resources would be available to get everyone out of this situation.

However, we don’t exist in a perfect world, and these users, who are already often so disadvantaged in so many other ways, need support from software designers, not disdain or benign neglect.

A current example of these users being left behind is the otherwise excellent, open source “Discourse” forum software. I use this software myself, and it’s a wonderful project.

Recently they announced that they would be pulling all support for Internet Explorer (except for limited read-only access) from the Discourse software. Certainly they are not the only site or project dropping support for old browsers, but this fact does not eliminate the dilemma.

I despise Internet Explorer. And yes, old computers running old OS versions and old browsers represent security risks to their users. Definitely. No question about it. Yet what of the users who don’t understand how to upgrade? Who don’t have anyone to help them upgrade? Are we to tell them that they matter not at all? Is the plan to try ignore them as much as possible until they’re all dead and gone? Newsflash: This category of users will always exist!

This issue rose to the top of my morning queue today when I saw a tweet from Jeff Atwood (@codinghorror). Jeff is the force behind the creation and evolution of Discourse, and was a co-founder of Stack Exchange. He does seriously good work.

Yet this morning we engaged in the following tweet thread:

Jeff: At this point I am literally counting the days until we can fully remove IE11 support in @discourse (June 1st 2020)

Lauren: I remain concerned about the impact this will have on already marginalized users on old systems without the skills or help to switch to other browsers. They have enough problems already!

Jeff: Their systems are so old they become extremely vulnerable to hackers and exploits, which is bad for their health and the public health of everyone else near them. It becomes an anti-vaccination argument, in which nobody wins.

Lauren: Do you regularly work with extremely elderly people whose only lifelines are their old computers? Serious question.

Somewhere around this point, he closed down the dialogue by blocking me on Twitter.

This was indeed his choice, but seems a bit sad when I actually had more fruitful discussions of this matter previously on the main Discourse discussion forum itself.

Of course his anti-vaxx comparison is inherently flawed. There are a variety of programs to help people — who can’t otherwise afford important vaccinations — to receive them. By comparison, vast numbers of elderly persons (often living in isolation) are on their own when dealing with their computers.

The world will keep spinning after Discourse drops IE support.

Far more important though than this particular case is the attitude being expressed by so many in the software community, an attitude that suggests that many highly capable software engineers don’t really appreciate these users and the kinds of problems that many of these users may have, that can prevent them from making even relatively simple changes or upgrades to their systems — which they need to keep using as much as anyone — in the real world. 

And that’s an unnecessary tragedy.

–Lauren–