'You can't break anything,' or how intimidation affects tablet use

My grandmother's Oldsmobile helps me understand the success of the iPad

James Kendrick, who knows a thing or two about mobile after many years of coverage, wrote a great piece about tablets. The premise: tablets are most effective when they’re the least intimidating. I couldn’t agree more, and I know quite a few examples. Including my grandmother’s Oldsmobile.

Here’s the crux of Kendrick’s argument about tablet success, and lack thereof. Kendrick writes that there’s a common response when he asks people outside the tech industry if they have a computer at home: “No, just the iPad.”

That’s a good thing for these people, because it’s due to the lack of intimidation felt by using the tablet. They aren’t viewed as computers or complicated, they are just tablets. Many tablet owners end up discovering through experience that the tablet can do a lot of the things those complicated computers can do, but without the fear.

My grandmother Purdy drove an Oldsmobile sedan, and she drove it like somebody had just told her that steak was on sale, but only if she got to the store before everybody else. This made me nervous when I was about 10 years old, and then, like now, I like to mess with things when I get nervous. So I reached out to see what would happen if I held down one of the radio preset buttons while tuned to a particular station--would that set it as a preset? I reached out, but looked up at my grandmother, realizing that, even though she was in the thick of a backwoods Formula One race that only she was timing, she might not take kindly to my experiments. But her response stuck with me: “Go ahead,” she said, before taking on an indifferent tone. “You can’t hurt anything.”

She was right--the worst I could do was change her radio presets. I could roll the windows up and down, try to set the clock, and nothing would really distract her from making her personal best lap time. Well, I could burn myself on the cigarette lighter, but that was an important lesson to learn very quickly (and which still makes me reluctant to plug in phone chargers in my own car). When I bought my wife a refurbished first-generation iPad, I told her the same thing: she really couldn’t hurt anything just by touching it. If things go wrong, hit the home button, the only one on its face. If things go really wrong, turn it off with that other button. But even if she uninstalled things by accident, they’re easy to download again. No viruses, no deep settings that require a registry editor, no CDs you need to need to keep track of--everything is just how it is. And nothing gets hot enough to light a cigarette, despite overblown reports about the latest model.

It’s obvious that I think the iPad does a good job of fulfilling Kendrick’s premise of an interaction and consumption device that doesn’t remind one hardly at all of that thing at work with the keyboard, the “drives,” and the recurring questions about updates and security and processes. I also think the Kindle Fire does this, but it doesn’t perform as well. Making it easy for someone to get up and start jogging is a great start, but if you make them trudge uphill in a murky rain, it quickly becomes less of a thrill. Some tablets running Android 4.0, a.k.a. “Ice Cream Sandwich,” have good enough hardware to cover both the ease and performance, but it’s still a certain kind of experience. Yes, it’s hard to hurt much by messing with stuff, but there’s so much stuff to mess with by default: the minimum of three buttons (usually four when an app is open), the home screens packed with apps and widgets and shortcuts, and the quirky design of the too-many popular apps that aren’t designed specifically for tablets yet, and so show up as phone apps stretched out like digital Silly Putty.

There will always be people who like to mess with things, and I will always be one of those people. But perhaps the best way to encourage people to fiddle, discover, and stretch out isn’t to provide them with a completely customizable, Choose Your Own Adventure system, but with something that they know they can’t break.

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