Most younger, tech savvy people at some point have faced this dilemma – an older, technology illiterate family member (usually parent or grandparent) comes to them asking for help in purchasing a cell phone. You initially might feel a bit excited that they want to enter into your wonderful world of technology, but then you get that pit in your stomach realizing they will have no idea how to use the device and come back to you again and again with issues. This is the universal problem with introducing technology to people unfamiliar with it, you will be their ongoing IT person whenever they have an issue.
That is why when you are forced to help a non-tech person buy a new phone, you have to make sure you get the simplest, most intuitive, and easiest to use phone available. However, the cell phone providers do not make it easy on you. When I recently helped my grandmother buy a phone at the AT&T Store, I assumed there would be an extremely simple free flip phone that would be the easiest to use. Well, there was a cheap flip phone that seemed the simplest of all the phones in the store, yet it was not, in any way, easy to use.
The problem is that even the cheapest flip phone available today will be packed with junk that confuses non-tech people. It will have crappy email, internet, music, games, settings, etc… This will all be buried in sub-menu upon sub-menu, and just getting to a simple contact list can be a chore. My grandma is probably not going to remember to press the unlabeled upper left button to open the menu, then use the tiny arrow keys to navigate around a nine item screen to the address book, then scroll down a buggy list to find the contact. I’m fairly adept at technology and I was even confused at some points trying to figure out how everything worked on the phone.
Thus, even the cheapest of flip phones won’t work well for most non-tech people. So what do you buy them if they insist on having a cell phone? I thought about this awhile, even contemplating whether a Kickstarter project to actually make a simple cell phone would be feasible.1 Then I realized the simplest of phones already exists – the iPhone. Initially, I had dismissed it as far too complicated for any non-tech person to ever begin to understand. This was a smart phone, and could do so many different things that it would overwhelm a person who simply wants to call people or maybe send a simple text. Then it dawned on me, you could set the iPhone up in a way that it would be utterly and completely simple to use.
Assuming you get a factory fresh iPhone, it will come with twenty-three apps permanently installed. Yet, your grandma will be utterly confused by all these apps and most likely not use them. Therefore, immediately move all the apps to a second screen and into two folders both titled, “Do Not Open.” Leave only the Phone and Messages app on the first home screen. Without all the other apps cluttering the screen, you now have the simplest of home screens. There will only be two overwhelmingly obvious choices – Phone to make phone calls, or Messages to send texts.
Ideally you would delete all the apps except for Phone and Messages, but iOS does not let you delete built-in apps. Thus, hopefully the “Do Not Open,” folders on the second screen will prevent the person from accidentally getting in there and becoming confused. Also, you need two folders simply for the fact that a single folder won’t fit all the built-in apps. The Newstand app can’t be put in a folder so I stuck it on a third page.
Next, you input all the person’s potential contacts into the Phone app. That way, when they press Phone, a list of everyone they might want to call simply appears and they touch the name and it dials. It is hard to get much simpler than that. Also, go into the Messages app and send a few test messages to anyone they might want to text, so the next time they go in, the name of the person and a thread have already been started, and they simply have to continue the conversation. If the person doesn’t ever want to text, you can stick that app in the “Do Not Open’ folder too.
Once this is set up, the person can make a phone call in four easy steps. Press home button, swipe to unlock, press Phone, press name of person you want to call. Everything is obvious and intuitive and almost impossible for someone to mess up. The lock screen literally tells the person ‘slide to unlock.’ Additionally, everything is touch based and much easier to navigate than using a keypad on a flip phone, which adds an additional layer of complexity that can confuse some people.
If the person manages to pick that up, you might slowly add other simple apps over time. Maybe add the calculator, or calendar, or weather apps. However, don’t add those apps at first, because the key is to initially make it as simple as possible. I know many tech people get excited introducing technology to people and want to show them all the many things the device can do, but that is where problems arise. While it may be cool to show your grandma how to use Instagram or Twitter, is she really going to use those apps? Probably not, so showing them these things will only confuse them and they might not use the device at all. However, if after a few weeks or months they are experts at the simple version of the iPhone and itching for more to do, start to add back more and more apps.
Of course there are a couple drawbacks to this set up. You will be forcing the person to buy a data plan for the iPhone which they will never use, so that will make their bill higher than simply having a flip phone. However, the iPhone 4 is currently free on most carriers, so the up front cost would be the same as any free flip phone out there. In addition, the potential complexity of the iPhone might start to creep in, no matter how you have it set up. There’s always the risk the person will get into something they shouldn’t and mess things up, such as moving the app, adding a folder, etc… At least if they do mess things up, it should be a relatively simple matter to get things straight again, as opposed to fixing some strange flip phone OS.
Overall, I think an iPhone set up this way is by far the simplest cell phone you can purchase for someone. This should be the go to recommendation for all tech geeks when they get the inevitable questions from a non-techy person as to what cell phone to buy. While it does involve you actually being there to set the phone up correctly, afterwards it will make the person using it much happier.
1. There is the cell phone designed for senior citizens called the just5 which is close to being the simple cell phone I imagined. However, without using it I can’t give a good opinion about whether it delivers on its promise.↩