User story: iPads and heirlooms

User story: iPads and heirlooms


They were seated close to each other around an old, circular wooden table at the back of the café. Two ladies with grey heads craning their necks over the faint blue glow of an iPad. The comings and goings of the café murmured around them. They were flipping through photos on the screen, sometimes taking turns, sometimes both swiping together and apologising as their hands met by accident.

I’d guess they were in the 70s. They talked at volume and with conspicuous pride about the achievements of their grandchildren.

“But isn’t this fabulous?” The quieter of two, said, looking across at her friend, who it seemed was the owner of the iPad.

“Oh yes, it really is…” The other nodded. She had clearly been convinced of its benefits some time ago and was now eager to share them with her companion. However, seemingly not wanting to be seen as an over-zealous salesperson, she added a more conciliatory note: “But I know you love your ancient computer, don’t you? I mean there wouldn’t be any need to actually use the iPad if you got it…you can always give them away to people.”

It sounded like they were picking up the thread of an ongoing discussion they’d been having about technology, perhaps over many weeks.

I shouldn’t have been eavesdropping, of course, but by now my attention was piqued.

We often think of iPads as premium purchases – the top end of the tablet market – but here were two ladies with rather different concerns. This was less about affordability than the pressure of expectation. For some customers, particularly those who grew up in an age before computing was widespread, a purchase like an iPad comes with a long tail of additional worries. Will they be able to use it or will it sit around gathering dust? Is there someone who can help them set it up or fix problems when they occur? Even if there is someone they can call on for help, do they want to be in a position of having to ask?

They each took a sip of their coffees and put the iPad to one side. The owner of the device picked up the conversation again: “You know when my mother-in-law died we didn’t know what to do with her iPad. I mean we couldn’t give it to just one of the grandchildren, but not the others…”

“Well no,” nodded her friend. “That wouldn’t have been right.”

“In the end they gave it to James…” There was something about the way she said it which left little doubt she was referring to her own husband. “Now, you know James. He’s never even touched a computer, but the iPad…he loves it. Every morning, he looks at the weather and then he looks at his space images from NASA. It’s all very high brow. He puts me to shame. I mean, I just use mine for the games and the photos!”

I’d never really thought of an iPad as an heirloom. To those of my generation, mobile devices are attended by assumptions of individual use and short, disposal lifespans. Joe Macleod’s book Ends explores this theme in detail and I interviewed him about it in episode 36 of the MEX podcast.

Apple itself has seemed uncertain at times about the purpose of the iPad. The arrival of the Pencil, the Pro models and the multi-tasking capabilities introduced in iOS 11 suggest a growing ambition to position it as a creator’s tool. However, for these elderly customers discovering the iPad for the first time, it was something else entirely: a conveniently big, sociable and shareable screen – recalling some of our earlier MEX explorations about simultaneous multi-person user interfaces (SMUIs).

My justification for all the curiosity nosiness which fuels this ongoing series of MEX User Stories is that conversations like these reveal people’s true feelings about mobile technology. These are insights which are only observable in passing and provide vital additional context to sit alongside more formalised user research. There’s nothing which users can tell you in one-to-one interviews or co-creation sessions that won’t be enhanced by keeping your eyes and ears open for casual, observational ethnography opportunities in real world settings – something I’ve written about previously in this piece entitled ‘User research – what next?‘.

Part of MEX User Stories, an ongoing series of tales about digital user experience in the real world.

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