This is a follow-up to my previous post: Volunteering with New York Cares: The Orientation.
On Wednesday, June 7th, I volunteered for the Computer Education program for senior citizens in Upper West Side. It was the most productive activity I had participated in since moving to the city. Around 20 senior citizens and four (or five, I think) participated in the program. I had expected to help the participants with basic computer-related tasks, like creating an email account, browsing the web, and so on. After all, those were the kind of tasks I had helped with when I volunteered in India. Little did I know, the session was going to be an eye-opener and a crash course in usability and accessibility.
I was assigned to assist three senior citizens: A 70-year old lady, a Chinese gentleman, and an Indian gentleman. The lady had already created her own fitness video for senior citizens, created her own YouTube Channel, and was now looking to add more tags to the video to increase viewership. After I helped her add the tags, she wanted to know how to send the video link as a message to her followers on Facebook. She had already set up two Facebook pages and was actively managing them both. I was blown away at how enthusiastic she was about learning new technology and most importantly, using the technology to further her fitness and commercial goals.
The Chinese gentleman wanted to learn how to set up his Gmail account on his smartphone. He already had an account, but could not configure it on his phone. After he configured the account on his phone, he asked me to help him install a translation app on his phone so he could work on his English conversational skills.
The Indian gentleman was an amazing poet who was working on his own book of poems and wanted to learn how to use MS Word’s layout functionality to design his own book of poems.
As a technical communicator, I found the event to be a real-world lesson on usability, accessibility, and audience awareness:
- Audience awareness: I had incorrectly assumed the technological literacy level of my audience. The participants were much more tech-savvy than I had imagined.
- Usability: When the event started, the lady was trying to add tags to the video. She kept telling me she had done it previously, but could not do it this time, and that frustrated her. She showed me the left-hand menu bar and told me that’s where she had added the tags previously. I clicked on her video’s edit button and scrolled down to locate the tags window. I think YouTube changed their interface since the time she had last attempted to add tags. For me, a digital native, it was very intuitive to click around and look for stuff, but that did not occur to her. I found this to be a very important insight for UX designers: Changing UI interfaces frequently can cause problems for the digital non-natives. One solution I can think of is tiered-versions of the software. Companies can create a basic, tier-one version of the software with critical functionality and leave it untouched or update it less frequently. And a tier-two version of the same software can have all the bells and whistles and can be changed as frequently as desired.
- Accessibility: The Chinese gentleman faced issues because the size of the keys on the keypad on his smartphone was smaller than his fingers, so he kept hitting the wrong key. I helped him increase the key size, but again, that is because I knew the functionality existed. There is no point of providing accessibility options if people are not aware of it, let alone know how to use it. Making the accessibility functions more intuitive and educating users about the existence and usage of accessibility functions is important.
I wish I was still teaching at Missouri S&T (I miss it already), so I could share the experience with my students. I would sincerely encourage every technical communicator, UX designer, and developer to volunteer for the Computer Education program at least once.