Aging Personas

In the early 1990s I was a computer trainer at a continuing education school in Ithaca, New York. A Smith Corona typewriter factory was in the process of closing and laying off over 700 workers. The adult education unit I worked for committed to retrain some of the displaced workers. I taught the classes. Most of the participants were older workers. One of them was 62. I’ll never forget her.

Remember to Breathe

The first two days were rough for her. We started out in a Mac lab, and she couldn’t do much of anything. Remember to breathe, I would say to her. I could get her to use Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing because she could type, but she couldn’t manage the program. During her intake interview she told us she had recently lost her husband who did everything for her including balancing the checking account. I decided that this might be the gateway to computing for her, I would teach her a very basic spreadsheet.

Lotus 1-2-3

In the corner of that lab sat an IBM 8088 personal computer. I loaded a copy of Lotus 1-2-3 and sat down with my student. I showed her how to input some numbers and add them up. I showed her the magic that happened when I changed one of the numbers and the total changed. She looked bewildered.

Enter. Now?

I had her sit at the keyboard and helped her perform the steps hand-over-hand. The insertion point was blinking, we were moving through the cells, we completed the formula, and then I told her to press the enter key. Here is how it went:

The enter key?
Yes, the enter key.
Which one is that?
(Me: pointing) this one.
That one?
(Me: pointing) yes, that one.
This one here? (now she was pointing to the enter key.)
Yes, very good, that one there.
You want me to press enter.
Yes, press enter.
This one?
That one.
And you want me to press it?
(Her: pointing) that one?
Yes, that one.
How come it doesn’t say enter?

She had me there. On an 8088 keyboard the enter/return key does not say enter. It has a down and left pointing arrow (↲) to represent the carriage return on a typewriter. I used a sharpie to write ENTER on the key.

That is the enter key.
This one?
That one.
And you want me to press it now?

Managing To Breathe

She finally did press it, but she held it. The result toggled back and forth. Fast. She kept holding the enter key, the result kept toggling. I suggested that she let go. It took some effort, but she finally did take her finger off the enter key. We both finally managed to breathe. She didn’t come back after the fourth day. We followed up, but she was firm, it was not something for her. That woman is one of the personas that I keep in mind when doing a project.

Aging Personas

According to Pew Charitable Trusts research, as of 2012, 53% of U.S. adults age 65 and older use the internet or email, 34% use social media, 69% own a mobile phone. According to U.S. Census data the number of people 65 and older is now over 40 million and projected to rise to 72 million in 2030. Are you using personas that cover this vast market? Please join me in conversation about this @AccessibleJoe.


Joe was my dad. He was born in 1917 and raised on the wild Atlantic coast in Ballyheigue, County Kerry, Ireland. When my dad’s family slaughtered an animal, other families would come and help, and take parts they could use. When another family did the same, his family would go help, and take parts they could use in their turn. The community shared.

Last spring I visited Ballyheige and stayed in the old schoolhouse my dad attended. The children were required to bring a piece of coal each day, to feed the communal fire. If a neighbor had a piece of wood, and you needed that piece of wood for your currach, you might offer to help two days tending lobster pots in exchange. That’s the way my dad lived all his life, even after he emigrated and came to New Jersey. He always sought ways to help people, to be of service to others.

We called my dad Joe, and me Joseph, to make a distinction between us. All my life I’ve maintained that distinction. I’ve felt that try as I might, I could never quite live up to his example. I felt that I couldn’t fill his shoes.

I recently changed my Twitter handle. It was @csunwebmaster. I wanted something personal, not tied to an institution or job title. I’ve been doing accessibility since 1999. Accessibility is my passion. So that’s part of my new handle: accessible. Jessi R @canadian_diva replied “@AccessibleJoe you changed your twitter handle! glad to know you’re accessible haha.” Well yes, I am accessible: easy to talk to or get along with.

Last night after Accessibility Camp Los Angeles I was talking with John Foliot @johnfoliot and Dennis Lembree @dennisl about Joseph and Joe. John said he always had a tendency to want to call me Joe and we talked about that. I told him about my dad, and how I had come to terms with being worthy of Joe. John said the handle is approachable. I like that.

It’s remarkable how many people can’t spell Joseph. They tend to spell it Joesph. A long time ago I determined that I would give restaurant staff the name Joe when making a reservation. Joe is easier to spell, and certainly much easier to hear in a crowd. So the second part of my handle is Joe because it is easily spelled and understood by more people. Isn’t this what the essence of accessibility is?

Here’s to you, dad, I hope I’m living up to your example.