On the front page of Barnes & Noble's Web site is an exhortation to "Give Dad the Best" – meaning the company's All-New Nook touch screen e-book reader – for Father's Day. But as easy as the new touch screen Nook is to use, simply buying dad or mom any e-book reader isn't as simple as ordering one online – springing, of course, for the additional $3.99 gift-wrapping – with a perfunctory "Happy [insert name of Hallmark holiday here]" gift card.
As with any technology you buy for your parents, some in-person hand-holding is required.
I was reminded of this when I gave my mother a new Nook for her birthday. That's her in the picture wrestling with it – we were in my dad's hospital room visiting him this past weekend after some minor surgery.
Why did I buy my mother a Nook? She asked for it, kind of. My mom loves to read – as a former Bobby-soxer, she's currently engrossed in Frank: The Voice, the Sinatra bio by James Kaplan. But as we've all discovered, type seems to progressively shrink as we age, and this incredible shrinking text has reached kind of a breaking point for her. An e-book reader, of course, let's you increase the size of the text, making it easier to read.
I loaned her my Kindle, but the mess o' buttons and the keyboard confused and frustrated her to the point where the technology became more trouble than it was worth. I figured the All-New Nook touch screen would blast the wall between the technology and the content.
Old dog/new touch screen
When it comes to digital tech, our parents need to learn even the most seemingly rudimentary operational logic.
You see, technology – as all education – is generational. Children need not overcome any preconceived notions, muscle memory or logic paradigms that can block understanding of something new. They easily learn because concepts are all new and laid in fresh, wet neural concrete, exemplified in the fascinating short story "Mimsy Were the Borogoves."
But our neural concrete has hardened, making it more difficult for new concepts or information to stick. It's why "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" is true.
Every aspect of navigation you, I and the Nook digital interface designers take for granted is a new experience for our parents.
And she has to learn all this digital device logic before or while learning how to operate the Nook itself.
For example, there's the touch screen. There's a certain muscle memory that infrequent contact with an ATM cannot establish, especially for swiping. At first, my mom pressed the screen like you would a physical button, rather than lightly tap or swipe.
Then, when she sussed the right tap pressure, the Nook didn't react as instantaneously as she expected. The half-second touch-reaction lag is long enough for the uninitiated to wonder if you tapped it solidly enough. So she tapped again, usually just as the Nook reacted to her first touch, which means she had to now tap back.
There's no way she would know that tapping a search field would result in the keyboard popping up – if she even knew what "search field" meant. There was no clear indication what on the screen was "tappable" and what wasn't. The ideas of "home" and a "home page" also had to be learned.
Printed books may be hard to read, but she didn't have to learn anything new to enjoy them. My challenge was helping her reduce the e-book learning curve before she reached the point where having to learn the technology and the Nook was more annoying than tiny printed type.
The font size problem
Even Nook's ability to adjust the type size proved to be an issue. Yes, you can adjust Nook's type size when reading a book. But there's a lot more to do on a Nook than reading a book.
First you have to learn how to use Nook. The type size on the Nook tutorial, however, cannot be increased, and some of the pages have some really tiny type my mom could not make out. Oddly, the controls for increasing and changing the font is available in the tutorial, but the type size didn't change. I ended up having to read her what was on each tutorial page.
You'll also have to set up your parents' account info. The account info fields also are small with small type, as are the keys on the pop-up keyboard. Even I had to squint to fill in her credit card number. (I ended up filling out the registration and account info on B&N's easier to read Web site on my iPad.)
A bigger problem is the inability to increase type size while shopping. Reading the varying menus and lists and book descriptions in what we might consider normal-sized type for us was nearly impossible for her.
I spent about an hour schooling her while simultaneously chatting with my dad. To get more books, I advised her to visit a B&N store, where she'd get an automatic Wi-Fi connection and in-person Nook help.
I'll check in with her in a few days to see how both my dad and the Nook are doing. Hopefully my tech TLC has helped her scale the technology wall and she'll become a happy Nooker.