Desktop Adapted for Dad
The ideas in this page came from my project to give my retired father a computer running Debian Sarge. All the ideas can be transplanted to any modern Linux distribution, and most of these ideas should work with any desktop system. I used KDE and found it easy to configure, others will no doubt add comments on the other desktop systems.
My father is in his late 60s, and has never used a computer before, though he has seen others use them. There are a lot of people that now fall into this so called "silver surfer" category. Like most people his age, his eye sight is not perfect and he uses bi-focals which allow him to see mostly okay. He has never used a mouse or keyboard, and his coordination is significantly less than an experienced hacker.
However, he has lots of time and he does want to learn.
- Remote access is essential if you don't live close. Though he is using dial-up, I've set up a tight firewall, and only SSH is allowed in. I've disabled root login via SSH, and login is only allowed via a certificate. It's not quick, but it does work. A script wgets a web page on my server, so I know when he's online.
- I stripped the box down of anything I didn't think my father would be interested in, out went GCC, and any server function I could get rid of. Previously I've seen people confused with too many options, so if my father doesn't need it and I can remove it, then it went.
The KDE menu is ruthlessly stripped down too, and there are no desktop icons to confuse him - LESS IS MORE.
- I believe that desktop distros like ubuntu skip a lot of server and developer functionality by default, and have simple menus.
- Big clear fonts and clear icons. I picked a very clear font (Verdana), and chose a size far too big for me. My father actually preferred an even larger font size. Many bi-focal glasses users struggle seeing things on a computer screen, so make it big and clear. In Firefox I set a huge minimum font size and he was much happier, websites look funny now, but he can actually read the text.
- I picked an Icon set that had icons that looked like something (KDE Crystal). When I speak to my father and ask him to press something, he can actually find it. You'd be amazed at how difficult it can be to ask someone to press the Firefox logo, it's a red swirl round a blue blob to many people...! I also turned on tool-tips, and made sure that they were helpful.
- A large old 17" Sun monitor, was a positive advantage, I don't think a 15" would have been big enough.
- Colours and contrast. My father had problems finding the pointer against certain colour backgrounds. I therefore changed all the colours so he could see the big bright red pointer against a pale background. This also applies to applications with backgrounds. Dark, textured backgrounds/wallpapers look "cool" and are popular with hackers, but a swine to use if you don't have perfect eyesight, and a lot of experience.
- Instructions. We went through things with him, and wrote down instructions, which he still uses. The "F1" help files are a bit overwhelming to a new user, so provide printed documents in a large type face and clear language. With time I'm sure that the help files will become more useful to him, but not to start with.
- For applications with a button bar, I made sure the icons were big and had the text under it. I removed options that I didn't think he would need, and added more useful ones. New and older users have problems with menus, they require a lot of physical skill to navigate.
- Avoid anything with double click. Many years ago I gave my mother a PC running Windows 98, learning to double-click proved very difficult. My father used that machine occasionally, and both of them found double-clicking hard. I set this machine up to run where possible with single-click, so far my father is very happy with it.
- I set him up with an auto-login account that didn't have permission to do much. I told him his account couldn't do much damage, and this was a relief, with Windows 98 it's easy for a user to mess up the whole computer.
- Remember that many common tasks like: double click; drag-n-drop and scrolling, are actually hard. He found using a wheel-mouse and the keyboard much easier for scrolling down a page than using the scroll bar. Never underestimate the gulf between what you know and can do, and what a new user is able to do.
Also remember that many younger people also have disabilities, often invisible, I'm dyslexic for example. Thankfully modern Linux desktops are highly configurable, and with thought can be adapted for most people. Unlike Windows, with Linux you can also make quite significant changes to the programs installed, and the actual operating system. My father doesn't have any office software, but he's got lots of card games - because that's what he wants.
As ever, many thanks to the many people who have helped.
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