What 2014 Tech Products Made The Mom Cut?

Anthropology is the study of humans, and little fascinates me more than watching humans interact with technology. We express such a broad range of emotions when we use our gadgets and devices, from delight at a beautiful user experience to deep anger at error screens and lost data. It’s like those videos of monkeys using tools to open up nuts, except far closer to home.

For the five of you still reading, something far more fascinating is coming: how do parents interact with technology? As I previously joked about tech support labor marketplace Geekatoo, the holidays are a time for families to come together and for sons and daughters to offer their parents free technical support. This year was no different as I headed back to Michigan to setup all of the tech gifts that have accumulated over the past few months.

The digital divide is not nearly as prominent in my home as it once was, but there is certainly a wide range of outcomes with different products. Clearly, the user experience revolution hasn’t touched every product equally, particularly when it comes to setting up a device or transitioning a new product from an old one. Here is a post-Christmas report from the Midwest, where the real tech users live.

Google Chromecast

Google’s Chromecast is theoretically a revolution in the television viewing experience encapsulated in a tiny and inexpensive widget that attaches right to an HDMI port. Installation was not only ridiculously simple, but the device was also so intuitive that neither of my parents had to read the mostly non-existent documentation to figure out how to do it.

While installation was easy, actual use of the device was anything but. Google has provided a Chromecast app for the iPad, but the app doesn’t really do anything other than handle basic configuration. Instead, users open other apps like YouTube and Netflix and then use a streaming button to choose the Chromecast as a destination. It’s nice to be able to start streaming right from the apps we already use, but this model was not intuitive.

One issue that concerned my mother is that there is no way to “disconnect” the tablet from the Chromecast. When a movie finishes on Netflix, for instance, the app remains on the Chromecast screen. My mother was worried that the battery on her tablet would drain, and spent close to 30 minutes playing with Netflix until we realized that if you did nothing, it would go away after some time. It’s nice for this to happen automatically, but providing more explanation to the user would have been helpful.


The cloud started to materialize in my parent’s house this year with the arrival of Dropbox. As the number of devices has proliferated with each holiday and birthday, so has the need to keep files in a centralized location which can be shared.

Installation was tricky here. My parents, unsurprisingly, were very worried about their files being moved around, given that they have had data loss in the past. There are deep issues with trust at work here, and Dropbox only met them part way during the installation and setup to make them feel comfortable with its technology. With some help from me, they were able to understand how the system worked, and now they have at least some files stored there.

One issue that came up early, and one I have struggled with as well, is that apps that use Dropbox as their storage engine often ask for permissions to your entire Dropbox repository. While I understand that applications on a laptop have full access to a hard disk, and thus Dropbox is not a regression in security, it seems like there has to be a better model that would allow my parents and I to move our financial documents to the cloud without allowing every application access.

TiVo Roamio

My parents are 12 year customers of TiVo, although that might change following the purchase of TiVo’s new Roamio box. My mother has setup dozens of shows and recordings on her previous TiVo, and wanted to transition these settings to the new Roamio.

First, we discovered that when we setup the last box on the phone with TiVo’s customer support, the support agent had created multiple TiVo billing accounts. TiVo strangely only allows you to move settings between TiVos on the same billing account, so we had to merge the two accounts together.

So far so good, but in order to move our data to a new TiVo, it must be activated and have service. TiVo’s support agent transferred the service between our two TiVos. However, we discovered that this service merging prevents us from moving settings from the previous box, which the support agent never mentioned to us. Worse, when we inquired to a new agent, we were told to simply retype in all of our settings. My mother was nearly in tears, since she has dozens of “Season Passes” for her TV shows and it would take hours of typing in show names with the remote to get it back to work.

We called TiVo again, and another support agent said they are going to find a way to re-split the service so that we can transfer the settings. That was two days ago, and we still don’t have the accounts split. This should go without saying, but transitioning customers from previous products to new products should be absolutely seamless. On that count, TiVo flunked.


My present to my parents was a drone, specifically the starter UDI U818A Quadcopter. This model is definitely not the most user-friendly unit in existence, but we managed to get it flying around the house before crashing it into the wall and chipping off some paint. The manual provided in the box is definitely a raw translation job (“Please do not play the UFO when you are tired or off color, which will add the posibility [sic] of danger like improper control”). While we haven’t been able to get the camera working, my father seems deeply committed to getting this working and trying it out.

To me, that is the most important lesson of my little respite in the Midwest. When people are really excited about what a device can do, they can really push through the frustration and instruction models to eventually get that device to work. Transitioning between products will never have that same excitement, and therefore are far more vulnerable to the accumulation of little frustrations. Onboarding is a critical skill set for startups looking to grow, and those skills need to be developed by hardware manufacturers if they want their products to be easily adopted by all consumers.