I purchased my first tablet a few weeks ago, and have since been thinking more about tablets for seniors and caregivers. Like many, I’ve assumed that tablet-based tools will eventually make certain aspects of healthcare easier for clinicians, for older adults, and for their caregivers. But so far I’ve found the tablet harder to use than I’d expected.
Actually, technically this is my third tablet purchase. The first was an iPad last summer, which I promptly sent back after realizing that my laptop was much better suited to supporting me in my clinical work (read my full minority report here).
The second was a Nexus 7 which I purchased as a holiday gift for my 62 year old step-father, a structural engineer. (As he’s mildly uncomfortable figuring out new-fangled technology, I set up his device and helped get him started using it.)
Now, I finally have a tablet that I’ll be keeping for myself: a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1.
The device is slowly growing on me, but it hasn’t been quite the intuitive seamless experience that I’d anticipated. Hence I have a new perspective via which to consider tablets for people who are even less digitally savvy than myself.
Now, I should disclose that my phone is a Blackberry – the only smartphone last summer at Verizon that could be answered by pushing a button rather than swiping – but I had an iPhone from 2008-2009 and an Android phone for a month in 2011. Also, as my husband remains an iPhone devotee, I’ve found myself regularly using his phone regularly to access some app not available on my phone.
So this year I came to try these Android tablets having a little prior Android experience to draw on, as well as some iOS familiarity. Here are some of the hitches I experienced:
- Disorientation when first getting started. This happened with both the Nexus and the Samsung. Obviously both devices walk the user through some basic setup initially, but I still found myself often perplexed and in “figure-it-out” mode. I struggled with things like figuring out how to switch between apps, decluttering the main screen, copying text, and searching the device. I found myself often turning to Google on my laptop to solve the latest small quandry of the moment.
So these are my current conclusions about transitioning to Android tablets:
- A fair amount of tacit knowledge is presumed. Although the included quick start guides do help one get started, they still assume one understands certain basics, like what a widget is. (I’ll admit that I didn’t know what a widget was, and am still unsure of how to use them.)
- Becoming comfortable with a helpful group of apps takes time. One has to spend time figuring out what are the darn apps already included on the device, one has to spend time identifying additional needed apps, and then one has to learn how to use the apps themselves. This is not a trivial process, especially given the choice fatigue involved in selecting apps to use.
- It’s an effort to avoid cognitive clutter. From the multitude of preloaded apps to the unavoidable recommended books in the Play Books reader, these tablets seem to bombard the user’s brain with all kinds of tiresome extras. I suppose the manufacturer would tell me these are meant to be helpful, but I’m sure that if one did psychological research, one would find that people have better cognitive performance and feel calmer when there is less to look at.
- A tablet is not a substitute for a laptop or desktop. In particular, I’ve found the tablets very limiting in two specific aspects. One is web browsing capability: the mobile versions of many websites drive me slightly batty. The other is text entry: even with voice input or Samsung’s Swype-like keyboard feature, entering text still feels painfully clumsy compared to typing on a keyboard. (Yes, I could get a Bluetooth keyboard, but then I might as well use my laptop, right?)
How we might make the tablet transition easier
Here’s what I think someone like me – or even my step-father – needed in order to transition more easily to the tablet:
- Coaching on the basics of using the operating system and the device. Ideally this tutorial is adapted to the type of new user: my step-father and I will have different needs from this kind of tutorial, because even though we are both new, we have different learning styles and comfort levels with new technology. Alternatively, if there had been a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 for Dummies book, I would’ve bought it as the Dummies series is usually much more readable and practical than the user’s manual. (I imagine the poor Dummies authors are having trouble keeping up with Android updates and the general pace of tech evolution however.)
- Needs assessment and recommendations on which apps to use. The dream scenario would be to talk to a capable person about what you’d like to use the device for, and then have good apps recommended (without undue influence from the app makers). Bonus if the apps can be installed and configured for you. This is, of course, the role that many younger adults play for older adults wanting to use a tablet or new digital device. And many of us rely on a tech-savvy friend to recommend apps to us; otherwise the choices easily become overwhelming.
- Help optimizing frequently-used apps. Even if one is using a well-designed app or program, one often doesn’t get the best use out of it without either making an effort to the learn the ins-and-outs, or getting some guidance from an expert. The ideal scenario is for someone to watch one using the app, and then make a few suggestions as to how to use it more effectively.
Summing it up
Tablets and their associated apps can in theory be useful tools, especially for digital health purposes. However, my own recent experience transitioning to an Android tablet was harder than I expected, leaving me to wonder how we might make the process easier for boomer caregivers and for older adults. (And for other practicing clinicians, for that matter).
In particular, I found that using the tablet presumed a fair amount of tacit knowledge, and required me to do a lot of on-the-fly figuring things out. Finding the right apps for my needs and learning to use them was a bit time-consuming. Tablets are very customizable and offer a lot of choices, but all these choices can easily be overwhelming. It also takes a while to learn to use an app efficiently.
In an ideal world, I would’ve like to have access to some tailored coaching on how to use the device efficiently. I would’ve also liked to have a needs assessment and then have apps be recommended, rather than having to spend time and mental energy hashing it all out on my own. In many cases, tech-savvy people provide this kind of orientation, navigation, and troubleshooting to less tech-adept friends and family. Is there a way to provide this kind of assistance more broadly to people transitioning to tablets?
Leslie Kernisan, MD, MPH, has been practicing geriatrics since 2006, and is board-certified in Internal Medicine and in Geriatric Medicine. She blogs at GeriTech.