What I Learned About Technical Communication from a Nonagenarian


My great Uncle Jack is my model for how spry I want to be in my 90s. At 92, he has (mostly) good health, and a very healthy determination to keep moving along in life. He’s always trying to learn, and he tries to make it to every community and church event possible.

Uncle Jack uses his computer to keep his brain running on all cylinders. All day long, he’s typing articles, sending emails, and checking Facebook.

But …

There’s a problem. Even though he works hard to keep up with technology, Uncle Jack has a harder time learning new things than someone in my generation. A while back, Uncle Jack’s old computer broke down, and he had to buy a new one. It was a blow for him – with a new operating system, and new software, he was lost.

This isn’t a totally unique situation. In the past, the majority of computer and internet users were comparatively young. But as time goes by, more and more users are older. This block of our society represents a great opportunity for software and internet-based companies. But there are some big challenges, too. Older people may:

  • Have a harder time learning how to do new things
  • Forget what they’ve learned more quickly
  • Use older technology

The solution

Here’s what I did to help Uncle Jack:

  • I decided to put together a simple Word document (“How to Use My Computer”) for him to use when I wasn’t there to remind him how to complete tasks.
  • I only focused on how to do things. I was just trying to teach him how to complete certain tasks that he wanted to know how to complete (such as how to save to his A: drive). I wasn’t trying to make him a good computer user.
  • I wrote the manual as simply as possible. I had to include every possible screenshot, and avoid combining even simple steps.

The results

Here are some of the lessons I learned from developing Uncle Jack’s manual:

  • Good documentation will (eventually) triumph. If you’ve written the right content for the right audience, it will work for them.
    When he first began trying to use the document, Uncle Jack would click screenshots of programs, expecting the programs themselves to open. But he kept trying, and eventually learned how to use the manual. Now he praises it.
  • Content really is king. Uncle Jack didn’t care about fancy formatting – though you shouldn’t design a document in a confusing way, either. Even typos didn’t matter as much. It was much more important to have clearly written, correct steps.
  • You can’t be too simple. This may be the lowest-level audience available. I had to write with a level of detail to match.
  • Expect some follow-up. Even with the document, Uncle Jack needs periodic “tech support.” And I add on to the document from time to time. But “How to Use My Computer” has saved us both a lot of time and headaches. And that’s what all good documentation does.