Desktop Adapted for Dad (DAD) :: Part 1


The ideas in this article came from my project to give my retired father a computer running Debian Sarge[1] and KDE. All the ideas can be transposed to any modern Linux/Unix distribution, and most of these ideas should work with any desktop system.

My father is in his early 70s, 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 eyesight is less than perfect and he wears bi-focals. He has never used a mouse or keyboard, and his co-ordination is significantly less than that of an experience hacker.

However, he has lots of time and he does want to learn.

Hints for "DAD"

Remote Administration. Remote access is essential if you do not live close. Though he is using dial-up, I have set up a tight firewall, and only SSH is allowed in. I have disabled root login via SSH, and login is only allowed via a certificate. It is not quick, but it does work. Windows does not come with built-in secure remote access, which ruled it out as an option.

I wrote a small shell script that touches a cgi script on my home server when his computer connects to the Internet, so that I know when he is online.

Less Is More. Previously I have seen people confused with too many options, so if my father did not need it and I could remove it, then it went.

I stripped the box down of anything I did not think my father would be interested in, for example out went GCC, and any server function I could get rid of.

The KDE menu was ruthlessly stripped down, and all desktop icons were removed to avoid confusion.

I believe that specialised desktop distros, for example Ubuntu, skip a lot of server and developer functionality by default, and have simple menus, thus less removal may be necessary.

Colours and Contrast. My father had problems finding the pointer against certain colour backgrounds. I therefore changed the desktop colours scheme 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 are a hindrance if you do not have perfect eyesight, nor a lot of experience.

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[2]. 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, some websites look funny now, but he can actually read the text.

I picked an Icon set that had icons that looked like something recognisable (KDE Crystal). When I speak to my father and ask him to press something, he can actually identify the icon I am talking about. You would be amazed at how difficult it can be to ask someone to press the Firefox logo: to many people it is a red swirl round a blue blob...!

I also turned on tool-tips, and edited them as necessary to made sure that they were helpful.

A large old 17" Sun monitor[3], was an advantage, I do not think a 15" would have been big enough.

Clear Buttons. For applications with a button bar, I made sure the icons were big and had the text under them. I removed options that I thought he would not need, and added more useful ones. New users and older people have problems with menus, as they require a lot of manual skill to navigate, buttons are easier to use.

Avoid anything with double click. A few years ago I gave my mother a PC running Windows, learning to double-click proved very difficult. My father tried that machine very occasionally, and also found double-clicking hard. I set his machine up to run, where possible, with single-click.

Instructions. I went through things with him, and wrote down instructions, which he still uses. The "F1" help system is overwhelming to a new user, so I provided printed documents in a large type face and clear language. With time I am sure that the help files will become more useful to him, but not to start with.

Auto-login to a User Role. I set him up with an auto-login account that did not have permission to do much. I told him he could not do much damage, and this was a great relief to him. With Windows it is easy for any user to mess up the whole computer.

Mouse Trap. Remember that many common tasks like: double click; drag-n-drop and scrolling, are actually hard. My father 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.

Beyond Dad

Remember that many younger people also have impairments, I am dyslexic for example: so I have customised my desktop for my needs. 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 to the actual operating system. My father does not have any office software, but he has got lots of card games - because that is what he wants, and so far my father is very happy with it. With time and experience, my father may require additional programs and desktop changes, and these can easily be accommodated within the current framework.

  1. Since upgraded to Etch, later Squeeze
  2. I have more recently increased font sizes again
  3. Eventually replaced with a 17" TFT unit