timothy falconer's semantic weblog
Big Fractal Tangle

Granny Goes Digital

The idea for my company’s current project began in January 1999 while I was trying to teach my mom, Rosemary, how to email photos taken with her new Kodak digital camera. The software that came with it was called PictureEasy, and was pretty easy. Of the two dozen photo programs I’ve used since, it was probably the best for her, but it still had some snags that tripped her up from time to time.

Over the next few years, whenever we went to visit her in Bonita Springs, Florida (half an hour from Sanibel), I’d download a bunch of new photo programs to see if anyone had made something easier than PictureEasy. As I imagined my mom learning and using each program, I knew from my teaching sessions where she’d have trouble. Without fail, these other programs assumed you already knew how you wanted to organize everything. They assumed you were comfortable using files and folders, which is something my mom never quite understood.

In the last years of her life, my mom lived alone. Except for the occasional out-of-town guest, she was lonely most of the time. She’d often tell me how grateful she was for her computer, saying she felt like it was a real person in the house. She loved email, she loved IM, she loved Create-A-Card, she loved Quicken. The machine connected her to family. It gave her a sense of purpose. Yet for all the good it brought, she’d often got confused. When she called with questions, she always seemed a bit embarrassed, as though it was her fault she couldn’t figure things out.

Being a software developer, I decided that if I couldn’t find a photo program good enough for my mom, I’d make one. In the summer of 2000, I systematically compared all the programs I’d researched, boiled them down to their bare essence, and did a lot of blank-page brainstorming. I began designing a program my mother would really like. Unfortunately, the demands of the day took precedence, leaving my designs on paper.

Last January, my mother died unexpectedly. Soon after, my top work priority became making the program designed with her in mind. For months I’ve asked myself “Would mom understand this, or would it make her feel dumb?” I’ve imagined her browsing her lifetime of photos, telling stories for all who’d listen. I’ve imagined her giving structure and commentary, interlinking her snapshots, all the while building something of beauty for future generations: a glimpse of my mom.

Instead her photos, her thousands of photos, lie jumbled in boxes in my basement, all with tales that will never be told. What was she thinking? Who are these people? I long for her voice, her memories, her joys.

So you see, I’m not just ranting about usability in these posts. This granny business is very personal to me. Around the world, there are millions who wish to remember more of their lives, their loved ones, their communities. We can help them do this, but we gotta make it easy first.

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