Making a parent-friendly iPad for Mom

Working at Computerworld, even as an editor, has earned me the role of my family's go-to person for tech support. My older brothers and father all turn to me for purchasing advice and troubleshooting. Despite that, my suggestions are often disregarded in favor of what's familiar, as evidenced by my brothers running Windows Vista and my father running the family business on an Apple II until 2007.

But one person who has never relied on my IT experience is my mother. Trained as a nurse in the sixties before dedicating herself to raising a family, she's never had much need for a computer. Naturally, that didn't stop me from trying to get her online, and I'd sit her down in front of my father's iMac many times over the years to show her how to read email. But she was not a motivated student for two reasons. First, she'd never learned to use a QWERTY keyboard and found hunting and pecking an arduous process. Second, the iMac was part of my father's home office, and the idea that she could accidentally wipe out the family business (she couldn't) discouraged her. I've tried various methods to overcome these fears, but to date, I've not been successful.

But as our family grows more geographically diverse, I've been motivated to again try to expand my mother's communication outlets. This time, I'm using a completely different approach by getting her her own computing device: an iPad. I've heard how popular the iPad has become as a first computer and thought this might be the way to get my mother online, especially as it will address her two concerns. The intuitive touch interface will allow her to bypass the QWERTY keyboard that is a barrier to the iMac. Also, the iMac not only resides in my father's physical space (his home office), but also represents a virtual space that is his. The iPad will be something my mom can use in rooms she's more comfortable in, from the den to the porch; and with no essential files on the iPad, she can also consider it a personal and risk-free virtual space (though curated by me).

With last month's introduction of the iPad 2, I was able to get a fair deal on eBay for a refurbished first-generation iPad. As I'd never used an iOS device, I spent a week playing with it, learning how to use it so that I could then teach my mother and answer her questions. I didn't feel the need for my knowledge to be exhaustive, though; I figured that some amount of shared discovery might be fun for us both and also make the iPad seem less intimidating.

More important, I wanted to make the iPad as parent-friendly as possible, and I was concerned its default configuration might be too confusing for her. So during that first week, there were several changes I made to the default configuration:

  • In the dock, I put just three apps: Mail; Photos; and Draw Free, the latter being a paint program -- something fun and creative which neatly shows off the iPad's touch interface.
  • I moved all other apps off the home screen. Most of the default apps are ones my mother will not initially be interested in: Safari, iTunes, iPod, Notes, Maps, Settings, Game Center, and App Store. The iPad allows the home screen to be blank, so I shuffled these apps to the second screen, making an uncluttered and uncomplicated default presentation of just the three dock apps.
  • On the second and third screens of apps, I installed a variety of free apps, from reference tools like TV Guide and Weather HD Free to diversions such as Checkers Free HD and Virtuoso Piano. As Mom grows more comfortable with the iPad, I can slowly introduce her to these additional apps, moving them one-by-one onto her home screen or dock.
  • I configured Safari to always accept cookies and to remember usernames and passwords and preloaded any that she would need to know, such as for
  • I also set up iTunes, iBooks, and the App Store with my father's existing Apple Store account, and the Kindle and Nook apps with my and Barnes & Noble accounts, respectively. Should I introduce her to these apps, I'll be able to do so easily, without any onerous account setup, and make a few sample purchases on my dime. If she cottons to these apps, then we can invest in setting her up with her own accounts.
  • I configured my mom's email address for IMAP access. Since I know her password, I'll be able log into webmail and help out if she needs me to. I also set the iPad to download new messages only when the Mail app is running, so that she won't hear random beeps when running other apps and start wondering what she did to cause that.
  • Under both Settings and Mail, I made the font size larger. Mom's vision isn't worse than anyone else's her age, but no sense making her squint.
  • Using the Settings app, I restricted access to the following features: Ping, deleting apps, in-app purchases, changes to accounts and location services, multiplayer online games, and adding game friends. My goal was to make the iPad as safe an environment as possible, so that Mom needn't worry about accidentally doing anything destructive or expensive (like investing in smurfberries). Accessing these features requires inputting a four-number passcode that only I have.
  • Finally, since my mom has never used a keyboard before, I investigated setting the on-screen keyboard to an alphabetical layout, which she might find easier to use. Unfortunately, that option is not available.

My plan is to sync the iPad with my father's iMac to load it with all the necessary email addresses and family photos she'll want or need, then give it to my mom.

I'll report back here on whether or not I've just invested in a very expensive paperweight.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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