The Mom Test


My mother doesn’t get along with computers. She doesn’t hate them, exactly, but she tends to find that they thwart her best efforts, regardless of what she is trying to do. This is not to say that she can’t use them; you don’t spend as many years as she did running the WP division of a major law firm without knowing your stuff. It’s more that they’ve always managed to make her life more difficult rather than less. She doesn’t enjoy them like I do, and that’s always made me a little sad because I’ve gotten so much enjoyment and edification from my first 286 right up to the iPads, MacBook, and Mac Pro sitting on my desk as I type this. I feel like well designed mobile devices can connect us to the world in a way few other things can. The right device is a portal to the world’s knowledge, a way to communicate locally and globally, a library and bookstore, the biggest local record shop on the planet, a hundred photo albums, an arcade — a virtual Swiss army knife for the human brain. So when the iPad came out, I wondered if it would be the first device to pass The Mom Tech Test (heretofore known as TMTT).

TMTT is how I assess most mobile technology at this point in my life. If my mother, a smart, motivated woman with some pre-existing computer knowledge but no natural predilection towards any device, can’t get motivated to learn how to use a product, then she either a) doesn’t need it or b) won’t be able to comfortably use it. A total luxury with a steep learning curve probably won’t survive for long (Surface Pro, I’m looking at you).

I should also be able to sum up the device in a pithy sentence. To wit:

“Mom, you should get an iPad. It’s a giant iPhone — touch an app and it launches, or go to the App Store to buy more cool stuff like books, magazines, apps and more.”

“Mom, check out the Surface Pro. It’s a tablet-notebook hybrid, so you can use the keyboard cover, stylus, and your fingers as input devices, but make sure you’re using programs designed for the Surface Pro’s x86 architecture rather than RT’s weaker processor, and remember that some programs are full Windows 8 ports while others are app-ish, so you want to be cautious about what you launch — yes, there’s an app store, but it doesn’t really have any apps yet, so you might want to — oh, I don’t know about loading old software onto this…”

My mom “got” the iPad; she’d still be reading the Surface Pro’s box. That’s the essence of TMTT. I’m not measuring tech knowledge or aptitude, but rather whether the device makes my mom want to use it.

I spent a few months talking up the iPad before she took the plunge. Once she did, there was no doubt that a long and fruitful relationship had been forged. It wasn’t long before my stepfather had his own iPad, which was a MAJOR step forward. My stepdad is the PC equivalent of Mad Cow Disease: once he takes hold of a computer, it’s only a matter of time before it’s creaking and croaking violently, deep in the throes of death, using system beeps to tap out Morse Code. I frequently hope his laptop will sprout legs and scurry down the fire escape ladder before he performs any more unspeakable acts (Emoji browser toolbar? Noooooooo…) on it. Like my mom, he’s a smart person who has used computers for decades in his work life; it’s that they have thwarted him everywhere BUT work. Despite his creative mind and curious nature, no device fit his lifestyle or adapted itself to his needs. The iPad did both. Before I knew it, the iPad had become an integral part of their world travels, and they now have two Apple tablets with more passport stamps than I’ve managed to accrue.

The iPad was an immediate success in my mother’s home, and I don’t think another device would have worked in the same way. My point is not that every device needs to prize simplicity above all else; it’s that ease of use is king, especially in schools and other educational environments, and there’s simply no competition when it comes to the elegant simplicity of the iPad. It passes TMTT, which means it’s no surprise that it also passes the Student, Faculty, and Administrator Tests as well. It’s not always about technological aptitude. We should find technology inspiring and emboldening, and it should integrate itself seamlessly into our lives. If the average user doesn’t want to spend time with it, and if it doesn’t make YOU want to learn it, why will your students feel any differently?


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