Setting up a PC for my Mum!

My Mum said she was attending a computing course the other week, so I decided to get an old laptop repaired and set it up for her. 

She picked it up this weekend and it was quite an experience!  To date I have worked mainly with IT professionals and super users, I haven’t really any experience of working with people who have spent all of their lives without touching personal computing, here are a few things I learned:

  1. Mum wasn’t at all interested in all the things I had set up for her, she already had a lot to take in at the level of how to flip up the screen, switch the laptop on, login and shutdown.  It turns out that all this is actually pretty complicated for her with all the options that the user interface presents and after she explained it from her perspective I could see why.
  2. Basic things threw her, like seeing a big “shutdown the computer” button on the welcome page where she logs in and less obvious instructions related to actually using the computer.
  3. she was similarly confused by the idea of clicking Start, then picking “Turn off the computer”, and then even more confused by the fact that after picking “Turn off the computer” she was presented with a dialog offering “standby”, “turn off” and “restart” – hadn’t she just picked “turn off”? and what the heck do restart and stand by mean? (there’s no help)
  4. She was very confused by the idea of running multiple applications at the same time
  5. She was amazed at the idea that she could edit text that she had entered into word without deleting it all and typing it again
  6. of course the list goes on!

After about half an hour of discussion it became clear that the course she was on had not introduced her to personal computing at all.  When she arrived the PC was already up and running with Word 2003 started.  All interactions with XP were via the File Open and Save dialogs, she had no concept of login, shutdown, start etc.

My first experience of personal computing was an Amstrad Word Processor and it struck me after a few minutes that this was what she really needed right now, an appliance.  You should have seen her face when I opened up Windows Media player, I thought she would be pleased with the idea of having her music all there, but no, she was terrified.

At the same time it was wonderful to see her true amazement and excitement at the potential she was glimpsing.  Word 2003 for her was truly amazing, she was thrilled by simple things that the fact that text reflowed as she made changes, or indented it for example.

For the first time I really understood what a challenge Microsoft have when designing a product like Vista that needs to be usable by me and my Mum! And I think I will be a lot more forgiving of some of the decisions that they have taken to simplify the experience and choose defaults that never really made sense to me before!

Steve Richards

I'm retired from work as a business and IT strategist. now I'm travelling, hiking, cycling, swimming, reading, gardening, learning, writing this blog and generally enjoying good times with friends and family

4 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hi Steve, I have had a similar experience. Up until quite recently we have not had a Home PC, with working on them all day, it was the last thing I wanted to do in the evenings. However with my daughters growing up, it was time to take the plunge.

    There was no problem with my children using it as they are quite IT literate as all kids are these days, but up until this point my wife had no interest in computers at all so I had to teach her the basics.

    Like you say, it’s quite an eye opener for someone who works in IT. The basics to me would be things like keyboard shortcuts, mutiple windows etc, but for complete beginners, terms like Desktop, drag and drop, cut and paste, single click, double click and right click are just a foreign language.

    It really made me think about how I describe IT stuff to “normal” people.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Steve, how about CP/M with autoboot into WordStar.

    Only a few ^ keys to learn and the are always on-screen.

    Reasonably close ot an appliance.


    Thanks for shaing your usability studies…

  3. Anonymous says:

    Never and I mean Never re-arrange the wife’s desktop icons.

    Although they didn’t follow the traditional XP layout I though I was doing a good thing buy putting them in the right place (My computer first, Network neighbor hood next, etc)

    I’m still hearing about that from time to time.

    Grandma just turned 80 and we upgraded her windows ME to XP, it went pretty well. just don’t assume that they want to do more than minimal stuff and you’ll be safe.

  4. Anonymous says:


    Once again I am sure that an Apple would have helped here.

    but there you go.

    Well done for struggling through, the experience with an non-super user is an interesting one.

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