Ask LH: How Can I Teach My Techno-Shy Parents To Use Their New Gadgets (And Stay Sane Doing It)?

Ask LH: How Can I Teach My Techno-Shy Parents To Use Their New Gadgets (And Stay Sane Doing It)?

Dear Lifehacker,
My parents have a new digital camera, and as I am from the “gadget generation”, they think I automatically know how to use their new device and can teach them how to use it the moment I’m handed the camera.
How can I teach them how to use it while simultaneously keeping my sanity, especially as I already DON’T know how to use it? Sincerely,
Frustrated with F-stops

Photo by Chris Devers

Dear Frustrated,

Great question! And you came to the right place. I have plenty of experience in parental diplomatic relations while teaching technology, and yes — there is a wonderful solution to keep both your sanity, and them extremely happy (and able to immediately use their camera). And of course, this applies beyond parents who aren’t great with tech (many are!); you can use the same approach with friends and coworkers who turn to you to do the heavy lifting when they buy a new gadget.

Make a Good Parts Version of the Instructions

When author William Goldman wrote The Princess Bride, he jokingly called it the “good parts version” of a fictional, painstakingly boring, and much longer novel by an (also fictional) writer named S. Morgenstern.

What I am suggesting to you, and I have done this on many occasion while training, is to create a “good parts version” of the user manual for your parent’s camera.

Make sure you get the correct make and model number from your parents (and yes, dear Frustrated, I understand this may require a whole new “Ask Lifehacker”). From there, go to the camera’s official site and download the PDF of the user manual for the camera. Yes, the entire 400-page manual containing all the warranty information, the ISO and white balance preset information. That’s the one.

Now print out the following pages:

  1. The cover page.
  2. The page where they show the front and back of the camera with the diagram of the buttons, and the numbered text explaining what each button does.
  3. The page where they explain how to playback and view photos.
  4. The page where they explain how to delete photos.
  5. The page where they explain how to connect the camera to the computer.
  6. Any other page that contains features you’ll think they’ll be able to handle, or you already know they would like to know how to do (Remember, you can always print out another manual of more advanced features. The object here is not to overwhelm them).

After you have printed them out, put the cover page on top, and staple them together. You can sit down and go over it with your parents, explaining that you’ve put together the goods-part version of the manual for them.

Your parents will be ecstatic, and most importantly, they will know how to get started learning how to use their new camera. And you’ll be able to print out “good-parts versions” of any technology they need to use in the future.


P.S. Got your own always-works method of teaching people to use their technology without the frustration? Let’s hear it in the comments.


  • If buying them a digital camera/video recorder – make sure you get them one with the biggest display that you can get. Otherwise they’ll keep trying to take shots with the camera at arms length (due to longsightedness) taking shaky photos (due to motor tremor).

  • What! Are the parents too lazy to read the manual or are they just dumb.

    I’m tired of these type of stories that are becoming just too common lately. It’s not a generation thing. People have been flying planes for over 100 years, sending rocket ships into space for 50 years, inventing electronics, TV’s etc… That means before your parents.

    More than likely this is just your typical teenager/young person thing that believes they know more than their parents. And this has just got to be the most self centred generation yet. The ME generation.

    P.S. I’m a cranky old fart who’s just tired of having to explain to my lazy friends and aquaintences how things work. RTFM!

    • “More than likely this is just your typical teenager/young person thing that believes they know more than their parents. And this has just got to be the most self centred generation yet. The ME generation.”

      Um are you saying that it’s the kids asking the parents to show them how to use the digital camera…?

      glad you got your rant in though.

      • Oh it was definitely a terrible rant. But I was feeling cranky 🙂

        No I’m just sick of seeing stories by young people stating how they always have to help their technological deficient or backward parents.

        I’m sicking of them hanging it on their elders, whilst at the same time are still living at home demanding that their parents should supply all their needs while they blow their money on toys and nightclubs.

        So, OK, I have some issues …

      • @Bernhard I disagree, I think it is the parents that are lazy about it. I have a step dad who is 60 and can do a lot of things on a computer by himself where as my mother is just too lazy to pay attention when I teach her.

        I have tried making her guides, and she just can’t follow them, and you can’t say im not explaining it right when I made it as simple as possible(I took screen shots, circled the areas that needed to be clicked and gave a thorough description of what has to be done)

        She claims when I’m helping her that she can’t send an email, but if I look in her sent items she has many emails in there she has sent.

        It is laziness in my opinion, coupled with not only the claim she doesn’t know how to do something but i think she more has the mindset that she doesn’t need to because i can do it. Which is frustrating!

        And a side note … I haven’t lived at home since I was 17 so I’m not expecting her to supply all my needs 🙂

  • That is an awesome idea… I’m definitely going to do that next time I’m asked…

    Also remember to explain to them how THEY would use the device, not how YOU would… Tell them how to get the least out of it, not the most 🙂

    I lent my mum my digital camera once, and she came back asking why none of the pictures were saved… Apparently she was pushing the power button instead of the capture button every time she tried to take a pic…

  • I often treat the same way you teach a child – let them explore and make the mistakes first.

    For example; they want to know how to delete a photo. They wait till I arrive and shove it toward me saying “How do I delete!?”, so I patiently give it back and say “You can do it, I’ve seen you do it on XX before…”.
    This gives them a confidence boost to break that starting barrier. If they need any help I give them (helpful) hints such as “Did you see the delete option on that screen?” “No” “Then maybe it’s on the next screen, try pressing XX to see” and then they’re off learning it for themselves again.

  • Lots of people are just plain hopeless, regardless of age. I’ve suggested to people that they should turn off their flash for better pictures (or because a building policy dictates it). They tell me their camera doesn’t allow it. I point to the button with the universal Flash icon (often with “FLASH”) written next to it. On/Off (or On/Auto/Off) I say. They look at me like I’ve just recited the theory of quantum chromodynamics and resume random clicking.

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