Communicating Technology with Seniors: Back to Basics

You’ve likely got one or two older relatives who are challenged by some aspect of the internet or other high technology and ask for your help. This process can be exhausting or rewarding, depending on how patient you are, but it likely will require most or all of your technical communication skills, from audience analysis to careful attention to word choice and editing. Are you up for the challenge?

Audience Analysis

I am a Generation Xer, my parents were born at the tail end of the Silent Generation. During their childhood, electronic computers were massive, room-sized mechanical calculating devices used to help decode enemy cyphers or calculate missile trajectories.  They are used to analog tools: pen, paper, typewriter, newspapers, textbooks, telephones, and libraries. The internet and home access to it didn’t happen until they were my current age. In this millennium, they’re facing the reality that things they always handled on paper such as mortgages, bank balances, and insurance are now accessible via internet. This isn’t to poke fun at their lengthening years, but to help understand their needs and their likely approach to technology.

One parent calls me once a month with some sort of computer problem, usually because they pushed the wrong button on the keyboard or clicked on the absolutely wrong screen (“How the heck did you get there?” I’ve asked more than once). This is the parent who keeps information on random scraps of paper scattered all over the desk, much as they kept their analog desk when they worked in an office. A middle manager in working life, a lot of manual/paperwork tasks were delegated to secretaries, who were often the ones who had to sort through the scraps of paper for them.

They do not do social media, for which I’m secretly grateful because I can see awful things happening, either through an inappropriate joke or inadvertent sharing of personal information. This is the parent I make certain has the best antivirus protection they can afford.

The other parent is a bit more tech savvy, having been hands-on with computers to conduct business since the 1980s. They are on Facebook and have a cautious, prudent attitude toward sharing on social media. They use their laptop primarily to play card games and their smart TV to watch game shows or sports. The challenges here are a bit more advanced: managing retirement accounts, setting up a smart TV, or ensuring that passwords are synchronized.

Support Approach

While one parent often needs a problem fixed, the other parent is trying to learn something new to better function in the electronic world. Their primary feelings are usually frustration by the time they ask me for help:

  • “What did I do and how do I fix it?”
  • “How do I do [task X]?”

In both cases, I try my best to escalate solutions gradually, depending on the question or problem:

  • Email
  • Phone
  • In-person
  • In-person, with me calling a tech support service of some sort because I’ve reached the limits of my capabilities

Email-solvable issues might be something simple like sending a link to an article or offering tips on how to search for a topic on Google. Phone issues are things that seem like minor problems, like a particular internet tab disappearing or something else going “wrong” on the computer. Given the long drive (40+ minutes), I often exhaust myself trying to talk them through a problem as patiently as I can over the phone before driving over.

Once I’m in person, I will sit in front of the computer and ask what’s going on: what did they do, what is the machine doing, and what do they want it to do? Then I will go through my own troubleshooting process, most of which is absolutely Greek or voodoo to the parent. By the time I’ve been asked to come over, they usually don’t care what I do as long as I  fix it. In these cases, I often fix the problem as best I can, explain what went wrong, explain what I did to fix it, and then–if possible–see what I can do to prevent it from happening again.

When the issue is something more complex like installing, using, or uninstalling new software, I will again do a lot of the work myself. This is different from the workplace, where I’d walk someone through how to do it themselves. My reasoning? My parents are unlikely to remember how to use that particular skill set or to need it again for a long time (if ever). Why force thrm to argue with the machine?

Once in a while, one of them will ask me to teach them something that they are likely to do frequently, such as sending an email with an attachment, copying/pasting text, or deleting items from their desktop. On these occasions, I fall back on my tech writer skills and type up a set of numbered, step-by-step instructions. Sometimes I’ll even make it a Word document and insert images with callouts, arrows, or highlights so they can see exactly what they are doing and how the screen should look once they’ve done it correctly.

Primary Lessons Learned

Enhance your calm

As with any audience or end user facing a problem, I need to practice patience. My parents had to get me walking, talking, riding a bike, doing math, and tying a necktie without screaming at me–turnabout is fair play. You wouldn’t yell at a coworker while they’re learning, would you?

Employ multiple forms of teaching/learning

Another important thing I’ve had to learn–especially when I show up to teach them something new–is the importance of employing multiple styles of learning.

  • Write out the instructions (visual)
  • Talk them through the procedure while I’m demonstrating it (verbal)
  • Let them practice themselves (kinesthetic)

Know your audience’s needs and limits

Again, as with a task like using software installation instructions, it’s sometimes better to do things for them. Installation procedures have changed for me as a user, and I’m installing new software once a year or so. Is the task something that would only confuse them? Is it something I find difficult as a regular user? Then let it go. They no doubt made similar judgment calls when I was young.

Go in with success in mind

Just as you would with any user of software, hardware, or other item, you want your older relative to succeed so they can perform a task that is important to them. They want to pay their bills, check their bank balance, or figure out what their insurance covers, just as I would. The computer has made a lot of these activities simpler…if you are used to or trained on how to use them. Give them the tools–information and skill sets–that make them feel confident they can succeed.

Keep the jargon to the minimum

As soon as I start talking megabytes, IP addresses, or shared drives, I lose my audience. Do they really need to know the name of each part of their task, or is it enough to each them the keystrokes so they can do what they need to do? Work by analogy if you have to (notice that computers still use documents and files–analog terms–for the electronic objects in their memories?). They don’t care how the gadget works, they want to know what it does in language that’s useful to them.

Concluding Thoughts

Eventually, I too will get elderly. The technology of the web will exceed my capabilities or even my level of interest (heck, that process is already starting!). I’m still on Facebook, not SnapChat or TikTok. In another 25-30 years, when I reach my parents’ age, I will face challenges similar to the ones they have now. I hope there will still good and patient technical communicators will be there for me and who are willing and able to talk me through something “simple,” like paying my bills.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
This entry was posted in education, instructional design, mentoring, personal, technical writing, Technology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Communicating Technology with Seniors: Back to Basics

  1. Enjoy the coffee. I enjoy every post.

  2. Bart Leahy says:

    Thank you for reading, and thank you for the coffee donation! In my case, the money will go toward sweet tea (a vice of the American South), but any caffeine delivery system is appreciated. Have a great weekend!


  3. Pingback: Speaking Expertise with Seniors: Again to Fundamentals -

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