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

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.


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21 thoughts on “How Some Software Designers Don’t Seem to Care About the Elderly”

  1. While I agree with your point that elderly users (and marginalized users in general) could be better treated by many software developers, I don’t think this particular issue is a good example of it.

    What you’re arguing for here is the preservation of a least-common-denominator status quo that is, in the long run, not sustainable. IE11, aside from being obsolete and vulnerable to security issues and whatnot, is a browser that does not conform to established HTML standards and so usually requires a lot of extra attention and special-casing from Web developers in order to give an acceptable user experience. Jeff was presumably “counting the days” because he was tired of having to expend an inordinate amount of resources on supporting IE11’s specific peculiarities—resources that are benefiting only a small minority of users—instead of just supporting a broadly accepted HTML standard that covers nearly everyone else. Especially when the IE support infrastructure in the software is actively impeding development of new features that are needed/desired by a much larger body of users.

    I’d also point out, here the matter focuses on IE11, but I’ve heard similar commentary in the past around IE5 and IE6, even Netscape 4. Where do you draw the line? You cannot drop support for an older software standard without leaving some non-zero number of users out in the cold. Is zero the only correct answer to this dilemma?

    I would agree with you completely if the point centered on e.g. making Web sites that support accessibility standards, so that blind users can use their reader devices and so on. There have been many cases (even legal cases) of sites that could not be bothered to do this, and disregard for the elderly and disabled is more than evident there. But here, what you are asking for is not only directly at odds with progress in software development, it also leaves completely unaddressed the matter of software security. This is just not a good solution to the problem you are describing.

    If marginalized users are unable to obtain, or use, devices which support current standards (of HTML, security, and so on), then I think a more apt solution would focus on that issue directly. For example, I’ve seen charity programs where people bring in their old, buggy Windows PCs, techs install a lightweight and user-friendly version of Linux on same, and then show the owners how to use their new system.

    Jeff might have been a bit rude to block you, but I think he (rightly) felt that you were arguing in favor of an idea that had not been fully thought through, and probably lacked the patience to explain why keeping in IE11 support was a non-starter. I would, however, expect him to be fully behind modern accessibility standards.

    1. For the record, I’ve been thinking about (and writing about) this specific kind of issue for years. Your underlying technical arguments are correct. Essentially, using old systems and old browsers is bad. Supporting them is a royal pain. Security risks abound. But in the real world of the marginalized users I’m talking about, for many of them this is a binary situation. They either use what they have — or they are cut off entirely from what has become their 21st century lifeline. In too many cases, software designers are applying pressure to upgrade with the result being pushing users who can’t upgrade right off the cliff. I could get into different specific ways that Discourse could have handled this situation but that’s not the point right now. This problem permeates the entire IT space. There are mountains of excuses — many of which could be argued are technically sound — but the end result is still these users being left behind and having their bad situations made even worse in the process. I believe that usually these users are an afterthought to most software designers — if they’re even thought about at all! There are better ways to handle this, but hardly anyone wants to bother expending the effort for these users. As I’ve said, it’s an unnecessary tragedy.

      1. I agree that this is a problem, but the particular solution that [I understand] you are advocating for here—software should not progress in a way that abandons any existing group of users—has an enormous cost that few projects can afford. Especially open-source projects, which often struggle with funding and staffing.

        I think it would be instructive to elaborate on the better ways the Discourse situation could have been handled, not least because it’s not obvious to me (and likely to other readers) what else they could feasibly have done. It would be one thing if you were merely lamenting the situation of marginalized users who get left behind by progress, but if you’re advocating for software developers to do things differently because of it, then you need to communicate a more concrete idea of what that would involve.

        These users are likely an afterthought (if any at all) to most software designers, yes. But the best way that I can see them doing anything about it is supporting users running on older hardware (albeit with modern software), not doing Web sites that are Flash-based, not requiring many gigabytes of RAM, that sort of thing.

      2. I really appreciate this this discussion. I’m working with an elderly man who runs a small printer’s shop in the rural mountains of northern CA he’s running an older version of Mac OS X that he’s afraid of upgrading because it’ll basically brick all of the Adobe products he’s invested in and is unable to afford cloud based versions for. The gentleman also has commercial Xerox printers that although mechanically sound have been sunset so his business is in a way being eaten away by obsolescence.

    2. I’ll add that one example of doing this right is Gmail, which after all these years still has a “Load basic HTML” mode, that doesn’t require advanced browser features to give users access to reading, writing, and managing their email.

      1. That is a fair example, but note that a “basic-HTML mode” is not quite the same thing as “continue supporting IE11.”

        “Basic HTML” means a Web site that uses a basic subset of modern HTML standards; i.e. no fancy Javascript, no multimedia, just plain, simple, HTML forms. This is a more reasonable thing to ask for, although not all Web applications are amenable to having such a mode. I’m not familiar with Discourse, but I struggle to imagine how e.g. Discord or Slack (real-time chat Web applications) could work in basic HTML.

        And note, as well, that even a basic form of HTML might not render reasonably in a non-standards-conforming browser like IE. GMail’s probably does, but likely by virtue of it having been around for many years without great changes, and tested with IE back when it was more prevalent. It’s entirely possible that a new project implements a basic-HTML mode, but then this mode doesn’t work in IE, and the project doesn’t have the resources to make it compatible. So then you’re back to square one.

        For what it’s worth, you’ll get a lot more mileage with developers if you ask for basic-HTML mode, compatibility with feature-phone browsers, compatibility with the Lynx browser (this one’s a stretch, granted), compatibility with Javascript disabled (as when using the NoScript browser extension)… all these are restatements of the basic idea of “a mode in which the fancy bells and whistles are disabled and only the core functionality is presented, for the benefit of a limited client environment.” Developers usually like the idea of cutting out all the fluff to get at the good stuff, so they should at least humor discussions along these lines.

        Continued IE support, however, is a whole ‘nuther can of worms… and it’s one that developers pretty much universally want to be rid of. It’s *that* bad.

  2. I see the issue of users with outdated hardware or software as somewhat different than other issues than I have read you Lauren discussing. We know that seniors form a group with a higher percentage of outdatedness than some other groups, but in this case the solutions need not target any of the groups, but the software and hardware. Some of the solutions (perhaps offering “trimmed down versions with less support”) might be good for all.
    Contrast this issue with those of tiny print, low contrast color schemes, highly complex user interfaces. Such things may hurt seniors more than some other groups, but they are in fact bad for all of us. They should be fixed even if some users in the peak of physical and mental condition and highly trained can deal with them.
    My hope is that many of the solutions (perhaps including trimming down for legacy systems) turn out to be good for many others — just as “wheelchair ramps” are good for wheeled luggage, cycles, scooters, hand trucks, and all sorts of perhaps unintended benefits.

  3. Totally computer-helpless people of any age will need periodic assistance. Directing users to install a supported browser or obtain help doing so isn’t out of line. They rely on electricians, plumbers, mechanics and many other professionals for survival.
    The solution to Internet Exploder is to install Firefox or Chrome. If the user cannot understand the simple instructions they likely know someone who can.
    Desktop PCs are too complex for many users who may be quite happy with inexpensive tablets. My bro’s elderly wife is completely intimidated by technology and a canonical example of learned helplessness, but once introduced to her Samsung tablet she remained firmly attached to it. My redneck bro barely used his PC because of malware and general hatred for Windows, but after I installed Xubuntu (for the familiar DE) he was delighted. I’ve barely had to show him anything and he’s comfy with LOTD, mostly IMO because he’d not invested much time in Windows.
    Most elder users just need a browser kiosk and little else. I don’t know any who rely in IE but I pointed all my elder friends to Firefox and Chrome many years ago. I installed both and let them choose.

  4. Yep, IE sucks — big time. Supporting it is a bear. Windows 7 is rickety and will be increasingly dangerous to use. Of course, so are Windows Vista and Windows Me. Remember those guys? I know of people who are still using them on their personal machines. Scary, huh?

    Of course, attempts by anyone to frame my concerns as “there shouldn’t be progress in software” would be disingenuous at best, since that’s certainly not my view. My more detailed criticisms regarding the evolution of user interfaces and the resulting impacts on marginalized groups of users have been the subject of previous posts, and I won’t bore you with them again here and now.

    Users who have people to help them are not the parties of concerns in this context. Isolated users without such help, with very limited resources — who are now (willingly or not) dependent on their old computers, who use a few websites and who virtually never touch anything else on those machines — are the persons in focus.

    In the specific case of Discourse, which you’ll recall I’ve used merely as an example today, the essential question boils down to how difficult it would actually be to provide IE users with the very basic forum capabilities of reading and posting messages, using a very simple and lightweight interface. This is an especially interesting question in the case of Discourse in particular, since I was informed (when I originally asked about this matter) that after the upcoming changes basic read-only access would still be available to these users. Granted, the security contexts in relation to browser implementations and associated bugs for non-logged-in users are relatively simple compared with logged-in users, but this isn’t quite rocket science, either.

    As I suggested in the original post, the underlying issue here isn’t Discourse, or other forum software, or really any software at all. The issue is attitudes. The issue is the kind of thinking that too frequently boils down to something akin to “Hell, tell ’em to install new machines! To switch to another browser! Or just move to some forum using other software! Don’t bother me with people like this! Go away!” Anyone who has worked in the IT industry for any significant period of time is likely familiar with attitudes much like this in various contexts. And this is made all the more tragic by the fact that so many people simply are incapable — through no fault of their own — of obeying such directives from those high priests of software design.

  5. Some of us “elderly” people simply believe that the constant upgrading of devices is environmentally hazardous. I just installed a top-notch anti-malware suite to combat Microsoft’s program of planned obsolescence. I’ve been running Firefox and Opera side-by-side for years after an IE crash immobilized another site, and recommend to my “redneck” friends to use two browsers.

    Linux is an attractive alternative to those who only use Facebook and Amazon, but not for people with purchased programs that only run on Windows and IOS.

    Apple is even worse for updating programs which stall out older machines. Web designers who cater to the ever-growing piles of Chinese waste which kills rural children and who design Web pages with tiny print, low contrast, or faded-out fonts have much to answer for.

    1. I have generally recommended Chromebooks/Chromeboxes for many users who essentially live only in their browsers, among other reasons because the OS updating process is so quick and painless. There are two potential downsides to this — depending on the circumstances of the individual user — one is the relatively limited length of time before these devices reach update “end of life” (e.g. compared with Windows, which is still what most users know), and the second is the lack of a way to enable persistent remote desktop connections for remote support. But overall these devices are a big win for a vast number of users in a wide range of circumstances.

  6. My mom at 81 was in this boat running Windows XP about 5 or 6 years back. She was not going to buy a new computer and all she used it for was Gmail, web browsing and logging into the bank.

    I popped around after getting quite a few calls and just wiped the XP and put Linux Mint on with Chrome browser. I set it to do automatic security updates. She still thinks she is working on Windows 😉

    But point is she is reasonably up to date on the software and still uses the old computer.

    1. Excellent work! This does tend to prove my point though — she had you to help her. Unfortunately, so many people in bad situations are stuck in them because they *don’t* have anyone to assist them in these areas at all (or often in *any* areas).

  7. Really, isn’t this an issue concerning low income people at any age? In my view, it’s poverty more than anything that is a barrier to technology, indeed, I suspect that income level is directly correlated to technological uptake level.

    1. You are indeed correct. This post concentrated on the elderly since that’s the area where I personally have seen this problem the most. Yep, low income is a major determinant in this context. However, I would note that the elderly often have additional related problems that routinely come with age, affecting visual acuity, motor skills, and so on. But yes, this goes far beyond the elderly.

  8. It’s simple. Software is designed for the “all important” 25-35 year old tranche. Management literally doesn’t care about old people. They’re not the ones that will make the product viral, and bring in money.

  9. Long before I became “elderly”, folks who (were allowed to) develop (and email) in 4pt fonts with long source lines, and added multiple blank lines to make a break visible in their windows, annoyed me: I suspected they’d need strong reading glasses by forty.
    My wife browses with default 16 point fonts and reads (ebooks) in large font sizes, and I know a number of sites I regularly use (with narrow 10-12pt font size default in about 800x800px tabs) still require me to scroll right to read lines (window size << full screen) and/or magnify to be readable.
    Perhaps app and web developers need to also consider more responsive and flexible designs for desktops as well as mobile, and fallback to basic formatting without the latest features when programs are running on older systems, or pages in older browsers, in 16+point 40x20em windows.
    Also consider others of us who like many/big (2K-4K) monitors with lots of smaller windows using narrow 10pt fonts.

  10. I’m going to add a general comment here. When I discuss topics like this, I always get some folks saying, “Oh, you’re missing the issue. Don’t ask software designers to deal with this, we need to get better computers and help and training to old people and others in need! We need to fix poverty! Then the other problems will go away.”

    Well, yeah, some problems would go away. On the other hand, many people get to a certain age and they either can’t or don’t want to change how they do things, but they still need their computer lifelines. And yeah, fixing poverty would be nifty.

    But the bottom line boys and girls is that the “let’s fix poverty!” — “let’s get the elderly the computer help they need!” arguments are the stuff of fantasies in the current political environment, where a sociopath like Herr Trump and his equally monstrous GOP sycophants are hard at work destroying the few safety nets that people have in this country, all to better enrich the people at the top who control the vast amount of wealth and resources. Very large numbers of people don’t even have basic necessities like enough food, and a horrific, serial lying creature like Trump wants to make them even poorer and hungrier. Maybe we can make things better when the racist, sick monsters like Trump and Co. are out. We shall see. But there’s so much that will need to be repaired post-Trump that I doubt computer aid for the elderly and/or poor will be high up on the priority list. In the meantime, too many of these persons dependent on their computers are being left to twist slowly in the wind.

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