Puzzle testing

For the past two years, I’ve helped a friend prepare for his annual puzzlehunt. As the test coordinator, my role is a little harder to explain than if I were authoring puzzles or promoting the event. I found myself drawing a lot of parallels to tech industry work, so I decided to write up some thoughts on why I chose this approach and how well it’s been working so far.

Puzzlehunt formats vary, but in contrast to traditional puzzles like crosswords and sudoku, they don’t come with instructions on what you need to do. Also, unlike escape rooms, there isn’t generally a staff member attending to you at all times, actively facilitating your gameplay to keep things moving along. That means that in addition to checking for puzzle correctness, you need to find out where people tend to get stuck and then either revise the puzzle itself or write relevant hints. It’s a tricky balance between being vague enough to give the players room for creativity, exploration, and learning, and being specific enough that they can tell they’re on the right track and don’t flounder around too long.

What kind of testing does PuzzleBang need?

  • PuzzleBang is written over the course of a few months, but revisions may be needed up until shortly before launch. This means that test feedback needs to be turned around as fast as possible. At the same time, it needs to be nuanced enough to convey how and why players got stuck.
  • PuzzleBang runs in conjunction with a week-long university conference. Puzzles are released one day at a time. Pre-written hints are released throughout the first few hours after a puzzle goes live. This means that support might be needed at any point during the week.
  • PuzzleBang is published as a custom site. This means there are very few constraints on puzzle formats, which makes it possible to incorporate sound or video, provide arbitrary interactions, and potentially hide hints in the source code. It also means that the infrastructure itself needs to be tested, not just the puzzle content.

How do test sessions work?

  1. Prepare materials. Game Control prepares for testing by creating a private spreadsheet. Each puzzle gets its own tab. The tab is seeded with a direct link to the puzzle, all scheduled hints, the solution, and a description of any known issues. This allows us to test puzzle content without being blocked by site infrastructure work.
  2. Recruit participants. I reach out to friends to ask them if they’d be interested in giving feedback. The typical test solving team is 2-3 players who already know each other, have their own computers with reliable internet access, and have at least some experience with puzzles. I bring all the materials and I handle notes, so there’s no pre-work or lingering to-dos for the solvers: everything is self-contained within our allotted time.
  3. Set expectations. At the start of our video call, after chatting a bit, I give an official introduction to our testing session. More than anywhere else in the process, I’m drawing inspiration from the UX researchers I’ve worked with for this part. I remind the solvers that the puzzles are a work in progress and that the goal isn’t to solve well or solve quickly, but to provide actionable feedback to Game Control. One thing that can be hard to overcome is getting people to ask for hints. Just about everyone wants to keep working on their own. I try to address this by emphasizing that asking for hints is necessary to testing the hints themselves.
  4. Facilitate the session. Throughout the test session, I need to remain actively engaged. There isn’t always much to say, so I take notes on their thought process just to keep myself focused and not wandering away to other browser tabs. It also helps me provide more details afterwards in case Game Control finds my summarized feedback unclear. Staying engaged also helps me volunteer appropriate hints when people might not think to ask for one, or redirect people if I know they’re going down a time-wasting path. This is always a tough balance, since I want to see their full thought process, but I don’t want them to get frustrated by losing a lot of time to something unproductive.
  5. Summarize insights. At the end of the session, when thanking participants for their time, I emphasize how much insight they’ve provided and how much more polished the puzzling experience will be as a result. This is true every single time: identifying pain points is the most obvious outcome, but occasionally a test session goes perfectly smoothly, which might actually indicate that the author should not revise any further and should leave the puzzle as-is. After they log off, I jot down everything else I remember in the spreadsheet, pull out specific action items, and tag Game Control to alert them to the feedback.

Some of what I’ve written above is aspirational, e.g., I’ve run sessions with solo players, and I don’t always remember to cover all the key points during my intro speech. I have a tendency to ramble when explaining PuzzleBang and puzzlehunts and how they differ from escape rooms. For the most part, I think participants still have a positive experience and Game Control still gets the feedback they need, even when things don’t quite go according to plan.

There’s one exception that I think can derail a session though, and the main reason I’m writing this post in the first place is to warn myself about it in the future: I can’t be in both roles at once. If I’m facilitating, I can’t also participate as a player. All sorts of anti-patterns come out of this, like trying to contact the puzzle author through side channels to ask for help, or getting really stuck on something and not knowing that it’s the wrong path. Even if that’s a realistic outcome during the actual hunt, it just doesn’t fit with the video call test approach. During the actual hunt, you can reasonably assume that you’re stuck because you just haven’t thought of the right thing yet. During a test session, you might be completely blocked because of a bug in the implementation.

Collaborating on PuzzleBang continues to be a rewarding experience. Having something concrete to work on makes it easier to reach out to someone online. It’s a shared experience that provides something to look at, not just another video call with disorienting levels of near-eye contact. Most importantly, it feels good to know that the puzzle author’s hard work will pay off because players will have a smoother experience.

Strange Loop 2018

I attended my fifth annual Strange Loop earlier this year. I’ve written before about why it’s my favorite conference, and after taking 2017 off to use my annual conference benefit a bit differently at RWDevCon, I was excited to return to St. Louis.

In past years, the talks I usually enjoyed most were about people’s hobby projects, particularly games, music, and art. I always like hearing stories about how someone else completed a particular project, even if it has nothing to do with my own discipline. I don’t attend as many strictly-academic talks, but since that’s part of the appeal of Strange Loop, I try to make some time for that too.

I started my week at a pre-conference event called Software with a Mission. SWAM’s goal is to highlight people who work on “Software that makes the world a better place,” whatever that means to you. Several of the speakers came from some sort of civic tech organization, including From Coder to Bureaucrat: How We Implemented the First Open Data Law by Becky Sweger and Kaitlin Devine.

Sweger and Devine talked about the surprising opportunity available in publishing budget info: “My whole life, I assumed that the government is big and there are smart people working on it, so they must be keeping track of whether this data is right.” It turned out that this was not the case. At the Sunlight Foundation, they built a system that could track how each dollar was ultimately spent and created scorecards to rate the quality of data being published by each agency. Nobody wants to be known as the worst at something, and these scorecards were successful at pushing the agencies to improve their public data. In their talk, they also emphasized how accessible lobbying can actually be. When you’re an elected official with few staff and you have little expertise, and then people show up and tell you what you should do, you’re likely to try listening to them.

I can’t link to the SWAM talks because they weren’t recorded this year, but the event seemed well-attended, so hopefully it will return to Strange Loop in the future.

The main conference ran for the next two days, and I crammed in as many talks as I could watch in a row. Just about every talk was interdisciplinary in some way, and most of them were things I would only expect to encounter at Strange Loop. Here are just two of the many talks that stood out to me from this year’s batch:

Generating Music From Emotion (and other experiments) by Hannah Davis

Davis starts her talk with a series of little animations and accompanying melodies that show the stock prices of Lehman Brothers and Bank of America during the period leading up to the 2008 crash. Her first example of sonification (like visualization, but with sound instead of visuals) demonstrates that sound is good for streams of data, grabbing attention, humor, and conveying emotion. She walks the audience through includes lots of compelling examples, drawing on both literature (Heart of Darkness, Peter Pan, A Clockwork Orange) and politics (2016 debates).

“It’s Just Matrix Multiplication”: Notation for Weaving by Lea Albaugh

Albaugh does a remarkable job of entertaining while breaking down complex concepts that I would struggle to follow in a printed book. The foundational insight is to notice that warp vs weft notation (which is what I would’ve naively described as “horizontal threads” and “vertical threads”) is binary in nature. At every intersection, the warp yarn is either above the weft yarn or below it. which means that a weaving pattern can be represented as a rectangular grid of 0s and 1s. Albaugh builds on this, showing how a matrix (the grid of 0s and 1s) can be multiplied with another matrix in order to represent the pedals pushed on a loom, and compares every mathematical operation to its corresponding physical loom operation.

Strange Loop continues to be one of the best tech events I’ve attended. This year brought a truly overwhelming number of tracks—good luck with browsing the massive 2018 schedule to figure out which recordings you want to watch—but the conference still feels small enough that I can run into the same faces over and over and friendly enough that I look forward to each of those encounters. I’m grateful to all of the organizers, speakers, and attendees that make it such a rewarding place to visit.

2018 reading list

By my count, I read 59 books in 2018 (19 new comics / zines / kids’ books, 37 new prose books, and 3 rereads from past years).

I started the year with a bunch of audiobooks via public library apps, mostly because I was battling motion sickness on long commutes and couldn’t read visually. Then I picked up a few books during an overseas trip about local politics, culture, and history, which deepened my travel experience so much that I don’t think I’d travel again without carving out time for books. I also tackled my first structured reading challenge in a long time (or ever?) and while I didn’t finish every item, I made good progress.

All of these things pushed me out of my comfort zone, which is mostly memoirs, comics, and comic book memoirs. That said, I still read plenty of the above. Here are a few of the books that stood out to me in 2018:

Americanized: Rebel Without a Green Card by Sara Saedi: An engaging and heartfelt memoir about growing up in the US in an undocumented immigrant family. The author addresses her family’s cultural differences and the fear that comes with being stuck in legal limbo, but the book isn’t a primer on those subjects, it’s a personal story of her life, with plenty of anecdotes about crushes on boys and embarrassment over acne.

Evicted by Matthew Desmond: This is one of the most important and well-researched books I’ve ever read. It’s also gut-wrenching, particularly in the way it complicates the standard liberal and conservative narratives about poverty in the US. I’ve come away from the book secure in my prior conviction that stable housing is a prerequisite for lifting people out of poverty. However, I feel much more despair than I did before about whether providing housing is sufficient; so many of the stories show people in need of supportive housing and other more intensive interventions than I think the US will ever be willing to fund.

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw: I really, really love this saga of the interconnected lives of Malaysian Chinese living in Shanghai. It’s a melancholy novel about aspirational people in a wildly mixed, sometimes impersonal place. It’s approximately the kind of story that would have been told in New York about Midwesterners a century earlier, but since it’s written by someone who grew up in Malaysia, the characters’ names, tastes, and backgrounds all have a distinctive local flair.

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang: This is a really sweet story about a prince who likes to wear dresses and the talented dressmaker he hires to clothe him discreetly. It’s beautifully written and illustrated, and the characters are real enough that I ache for them whenever there are setbacks. (I liked this so much that I read it twice! I also read The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up: A Magical Story three times.)

Yes, You Are Trans Enough: My Transition from Self-Loathing to Self-Love by Mia Violet: This might be my new favorite book about gender. Mia Violet writes an incredibly engaging narrative, weaving together her own life story and basic information about transition to create an educational memoir. I love the overall message that trans people are the experts on their own experiences.

2018 midterms

At the end of 2017, I had two goals for my political involvement: 1) make an impact on the 2018 midterm elections and 2) figure out what I wanted to do in 2020.

I had done very little campaign volunteering before, so I started by researching my options. I considered skills-based volunteering like Tech for Campaigns and Get Her Elected and general public volunteering like Swing Left and Sister District Project. I talked to friends who had worked with campaigns, either paid or unpaid, for different spans of time, and I tried to picture myself in each of these scenarios.

By June, primary season was underway and everything still felt very abstract. In order to narrow my options, I looked up the extended time off and political activity policies at my workplace. After talking it over with my manager, I decided to request several weeks of unpaid time off instead of taking personal leave. Situations will vary greatly here; things I looked at included stock vesting schedules, health insurance coverage, and other possible interruptions in benefits.

After mulling over my goals for another few months, I decided that if they were in tension with each other, I wanted to prioritize exploration over efficacy. Even if it turned out that I was bad at some common volunteer roles, this season was my chance to give them a try before signing up for a more serious commitment. There were also a lot of different causes that I wanted to support, so in the end, I ended up doing five different things for the 2018 midterms: two district supervisor races for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, one San Francisco ballot proposition, one Arizona Senate race, and a general collection of races in the Pittsburgh area.

Thanks to spreading out my involvement, I think I had less of an impact. However, seeing different campaigns at work taught me a lot about what I want my own role to be. I canvassed with a candidate, with a volunteer buddy, and alone; I phone banked and text banked my own city as well as places I’d never been; and I worked behind the scenes in campaign offices, doing data entry and sorting papers. (By the way, data entry was quite the slog while suffering from untreated RSI. I highly recommend getting your health problems fixed to whatever extent you can.)

Some of the things I learned didn’t surprise me. For example, text banking drove me up the wall because I was responsible for replying to things within 20-30 minutes. My usual relationship to mobile devices is to turn off all sound and vibration and if I don’t see a notification, oh well, it can wait. Canvassing was nerve-wracking in neighborhoods where people owned dogs because many dogs are reactive to doorbells, even if they aren’t actually aggressive. I’m scared of most unknown / untrusted dogs, so barking and lunging triggers a racing heart and other issues for me. I dealt with this by carrying an anti-anxiety zine in my wallet (not this particular self-help zine, but it also featured relaxation techniques and a hand-drawn aesthetic) and going through the exercises after I retreated from a particularly scary dog.

There were other things that came up for me that made this entire experiment feel worthwhile: I learned something new about the way I want to work and I knew how I’d apply it to future volunteering decisions. The biggest thing was probably the energy difference between canvassing, phone banking, and text banking. I found text banking incredibly unrewarding because the receptive people weren’t as chatty as they would be in person. At the same time, it was also stressful because the irritated people were much more aggressive, frequently swearing at me. Although I never felt like they were criticizing me since they obviously didn’t know me, I still felt the burden of keeping my mouth shut and being polite, since I had to represent the campaign and not just myself. In contrast, canvassing was really energizing. Most times that I went out, even if it was just for an hour, I met people who were interested in what I had to say and people who thanked me for showing up and fighting for something I cared about. People who didn’t want to talk to me would simply decline to answer their door; they didn’t open the door to yell in my face.

However, if it hadn’t been for my RSI, I think my favorite thing would have been data entry and other miscellaneous tasks in a campaign office. That’s because volunteering at the same office repeatedly means that you get to know the other people there. It’s inspiring to meet people from different walks of life and hear about what moved them to get involved. It’s also much easier to see the results of your work: you started with this large stack of paper, and after two hours of waving a barcode scanner or typing on a laptop, the stack is almost gone and the voter tracking tool is now up to date, ready to empower more canvassers, phone bankers, and text bankers to do their jobs effectively.

I went into the 2018 midterm elections with almost no volunteer experience (one day of GOTV in 2008 and less than an hour of phone banking in 2016 is all I can remember) and a very hazy idea of how I could possibly change that. I don’t have an exact outline for 2020 yet, but I know what’s important to me, and that gives me a framework for making my decision when the time comes.

Some of the things that came up for me when reflecting on my 2018 experiences:

  1. Take some time off from work. It can be exhausting to canvass all day long, even if you’re fairly accustomed to talking to people and walking through cities. That said, taking an entire week off at a time is probably unnecessary unless you’re performing a more specialized role. Very little canvassing happens during the week until the last weekend.
  2. Look for roles that involve talking to people. Talking to fellow volunteers is great; so is talking to voters. Talking to people reassures you that you aren’t alone and makes challenges feel more surmountable.
  3. Think about where you want to live and how you want the rest of your life to look. Do you want to sleep in your own bed? Do you want to have non-politics friends around to hang out with on your days off? One tradeoff of staying at home is that it’s hard to get away from normal responsibilities, which can be distracting, but it’s easy to stay in normal routines, which means that basic things like eating the right food and getting enough sleep are easier.


This is a recap of my personal experiences with Repetitive Stress Injuries, mostly for my own reference. I have no medical training and no business telling other people what kind of care they should seek.

The short version is that I wish I’d taken my pain seriously, written down my symptoms, and sought medical attention sooner. I’m now working with a physical therapist and experiencing some short term relief with credible hopes of a full recovery in a few months. I used the NHS website to figure out how to choose an appropriate provider. The solution is specialized physical therapy exercises (and strength training for longer term protection).

I’ve been glued to a computer since I was 11 years old and playing video games longer than that. I’ve always had sloppy posture, and sometimes a long run of browsing the internet while sprawled sideways in a chair would give me an ache in my mousing arm. I would sit up straight and switch hands if possible. The pain eased up on its own and I forgot about it until it happened again.

Even after I started working at a desk full time, I didn’t have persistent problems. Aside from remapping caps lock to control, I didn’t make any ergonomic adjustments. I figured that those things just didn’t apply to me. And then a year or two ago, the pain returned, and instead of fading away, it intensified over time. I kept telling myself that all I needed to do was rest and double down on my posture, since it had always worked before. I looked up instructions on how to precisely adjust my desk height, chair height, etc, and I stopped using apps on my phone that put pressure on specific areas.

While it did occur to me to seek out medical attention, I was scared for two reasons. My main concern was that finding a specialist meant finding a provider I could trust to recommend only evidence-based medicine and not weird mystical nonsense. I was also worried that treatment would end up being more aggressive than necessary — I have a relative who sought treatment for similar RSI pain and was convinced to immediately undergo surgery that reduced her range of motion.

The incident that finally spurred me into action was attempting to play Super Mario Party with a group of friends. The mini game that was randomly selected for our ninth round involved holding the Joy-Con horizontally (grasping one end with each hand) and flexing the wrists sideways as though the Joy-Con were being flipped up and down, or fanned. I’m at a loss for how to describe it and I’m not even sure I’m remembering the gesture correctly. What I do know is that my hands and wrists were filled with an intense ache that lasted for the next two hours and made it hard to even grasp things. The next week, I started my research in earnest.

As I noted earlier, I wanted to focus on evidence-based medicine. I know that scientific discovery is an ongoing process and that we don’t know everything yet, but I’m not going to throw away the things that we do know. It was important to me to at least try the most reliable thing first. I started by looking for research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but I realized that even if I could read and fully understand what a given article said (not necessarily true), I didn’t know how to ensure I was reading the best, most representative articles. I found a much more helpful layperson’s reference in the UK’s National Health Service (NHS).

The NHS page on RSI described my situation exactly: repetitive activities with poor posture that results in aching, tingling, and weakness. I was already taking steps to modify my tasks and reduce my activity, and my pain wasn’t severe enough that I needed to relieve symptoms before trying to fix the root cause, so I skipped over their first few lines of treatment and landed on this: “You may also be referred to a physiotherapist for advice on posture and how to strengthen or relax your muscles.” (A subsequent line does suggest osteopathy, and the full page on osteopathy provides the exact kinds of caveats I’d want to hear when making my decision: it’s recommended for back pain and there’s limited evidence for certain other kinds of pain, but there is no evidence that it can address things unrelated to bones and muscles.)

I searched for physical therapists in San Francisco and got overwhelmed by reading reviews and trying to figure out which providers were in-network for me. I finally broke through my indecision when I realized that patients are expected to attend one or two sessions every week for multiple months. That night, I sent a message to my primary care physician to ask for a referral to a place that was three minutes’ walk from my front door.

My physical therapist examined me closely, talked over my symptoms in detail, and affirmed my reports of pain when we couldn’t isolate them with her tests. She talked over my recovery goals and she didn’t laugh when I said that I just wanted to live my life normally, which includes being able to play some occasional video games without debilitating pain. She listened to my concerns when she suggested a practice (cupping) that I found sketchy, took the time to talk about the evidence, and didn’t try to convince me to do it when I still didn’t want to. Our weekly sessions focus on my pain journal (what I was doing and which areas hurt, e.g., “After a lot of typing on my phone, the underside of both forearms are sore”) and she translates those reports into a custom exercise routine.

My physical therapist confirmed that I have some amount of hypermobility, including in my fingers, wrists, and shoulders / back, which makes me particularly vulnerable to this kind of overuse injury. We don’t know for sure why my injuries are worse this time when they always went away on their own before (I personally blame phones getting heavier and a PopSocket distorting my posture when I tried it for a few weeks), but we do know the most reliable way to address it: improving muscle strength to protect joints. I’m advised to avoid heavy things for now, especially anything that emphasizes grip strength, but my long term plan is to take up weight lifting again for the fourth or fifth time. Maybe now that I have a very serious incentive, it’ll actually stick this time.

Packing lists

I usually travel about 5 times a year, which is often enough to get annoyed by inefficiencies but not enough to be really good at fixing them. Earlier this year, I finally decided to upgrade my bag in hopes of making things go more smoothly. While doing my research, I came across the One Bag philosophy and became obsessed with the idea of a packing list.

While I still don’t want to restrict myself to a single bag or commit to a permanent packing list, I really liked the idea of writing out one’s inventory in detail. So for my last five trips (New York, Seattle, Sunnyvale, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh), I wrote out everything I intended to bring on index cards: one for clothing, one for electronics, and one for everything else.

I’ve noticed a number of surprising things from doing this exercise on paper:

  • I procrastinate less. For some reason, it’s hard to open my suitcase and start putting things into it, but it’s easy to pick up a pen and start writing, even though it’s the same decision-making process.
  • I’m less stressed out. Putting things into words, especially on paper, feels like getting to use a “second brain,” which frees up (most of) my regular brain to focus on the next task at hand.
  • I forget fewer things. When I make my packing list and then go off to do something else, my brain keeps thinking about it in the background, which gives me more time to realize that I had omitted something and fix the problem before I actually head to the airport or train station.
  • I can still fit everything. Since a paper list doesn’t make it obvious how much a suitcase holds or how big an object is, I thought that I might get carried away. That hasn’t been a problem, even on a trip as long as two weeks without doing laundry.
  • I learn from my mistakes. When I unpack my suitcase at the end of a trip, I take out my notecards and annotate it to remind myself about things I didn’t end up using. Since I look at my old notecards when writing my next list, this helps me adjust my habits over time.

Planning tools

New Year’s Day, one of my favorite holidays, is coming up soon! I don’t really do resolutions, but I find it a useful day off from routines to check in on how life is going.
Here are a few planning-related things I’ve liked in the past few years:

Get Bullish: Design Your 2019

I’ve been filling out this worksheet since 2014. I usually do this in October or November, closer to when it’s published, but New Year’s is good timing too. The paper worksheet format is great for not getting distracted by the internet on your phone or computer. My favorite thing about it is that it encourages you to think about what you want to stop doing.

Book Riot: Read Harder 2019

I attempted this reading challenge for the first time in 2018 (challenge list, my reviews). It gives you a list of non-traditional categories like “A one-sitting book” and “A book with a cover you hate” and you try to read at least one book in each category during the year. I didn’t complete the challenge and I definitely didn’t like every book I read for it, but I appreciated how it pushed me out of my comfort zone of comic books and memoirs. The sponsorship by Libby was also nice because it reminded me of how much I love getting Overdrive books from my public library.

Ink+Volt: 2019 Planner

I use the academic year version of this planner, so I’m halfway through my second year of using Ink + Volt. I rely on digital tools like Gmail and Google Calendar for all of my actual day-to-day planning because I need the ability to change days / times easily and attach contextual information. So even though I call this my planner, I use the weekly view entirely in retrospect, as a tool for noting what I did this week. I use highlighter markers to color-code my events so that I can tell at a glance that “I spent a lot of time with friends this week” or “I haven’t done any activist or volunteer work in a while.”

2017 reading list

Like a lot of people, I was a voracious reader as a kid but have had more difficulty finishing books in recent years. I’m surprised and glad to see that I read 58 books in 2017 (33 comics, 23 new prose books, 2 rereads).

My main goal was to fill in some of the gaps in my understanding of US history and racial justice. Here are a few books that stand out to me with respect to that goal:

California Politics and Government: A Practical Approach by Larry N. Gerston and Terry Christensen. I read this as an introduction to California structures and a refresher on high school civics. I appreciated the frank discussion of the anti-immigrant racism in the Progressive movement. Now I finally understand why we have all those propositions on every ballot.

Kiyo’s Story: A Japanese-American Family’s Quest for the American Dream by Kiyo Sato. This book includes vivid descriptions of daily life for the Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans in WWII camps. It’s a great overall memoir and helps place our country’s crimes in context.

March: Book One, Book Two, and Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. This is a powerfully illustrated comic book trilogy that tells the true story of John Lewis’s leadership in the civil rights movement. Even if your history class was accurate, reading about a hate mob feels different than seeing the white faces contorted with anger drawn on the page.

Bridging the digital gap

A few months ago, I started volunteering at Digital Device Drop-In, one of the services provided at The Bridge at SFPL Main Branch. Digital Device Drop-In is a place where people can get friendly help from library staff and volunteers about how to use their laptops, phones, tablets, ereaders, and other devices. Contrary to stereotypes about who is comfortable with technology, I’ve found that the attendees from the Tenderloin community are a diverse set from different ages, genders, and races.

On a typical day, I’ll arrive right around 4 pm. The coordinator greets everyone in our 5th floor classroom, explains what they can expect from Drop-In, and then moves around the room, asking people individually what kind of help they’d like today. Based on the areas of concern (“I want to send text messages and check my missed calls”, “I want to share photos on Facebook and WhatsApp”, etc), he identifies someone in the room who’s knowledgeable and pairs us up. I try to focus on helping people use their Android and iOS phones because that’s what I’m best at. Some of the actual questions I’ve fielded include unfriending someone on Facebook, turning off notifications from the Apple News app, and posting photos to Instagram.

I was initially drawn to this volunteer opportunity because I work in a design-focused group whose goal is to make apps more usable for everyone. I figured that in addition to solving a few gadget problems and connecting with people, I’d also gain insight that I could apply to my professional interests. Here are some of the patterns I’ve seen so far:

There’s no such thing as an obvious icon. Contemporary app design (within my US-centric world) favors icons that don’t have text labels. Thanks to minimalism, icons look less like tangible objects and more like a bundle of lines. One Drop-In attendee asked me about the tennis racket icon, which is what passes for a search icon after years of eroding away the physical details of a magnifying glass. Icon confusion is common; I’ve had a number of people jot down notes while I explained things to them, and they would always draw the icon next to their notes. Since the icons weren’t meaningful illustrations, there was nothing that would jog their memory later, so they had to create their own links between symbols and names.

Information hierarchy is confusing without context. A big part of my role as a helper is identifying the problem, which often isn’t stated directly. The notifications I turned off from the Apple News app were initially described to me as “text messages from National Geographic that I didn’t sign up for.” I tried to figure out why I knew at a glance that News and Messages were separate apps, and I think it’s because a phone notification is shaped sort of like a desktop computer notification. For me, the app icon and app name in the upper left are meaningful identifiers. For someone unfamiliar with different content channels on a phone, it isn’t apparent that “News” is the name of an app.

Usability is a particularly hard problem right now because the mental models that we ask people to build have become so complicated. Every time our phones get more capable, we also leave more people behind. I don’t have many answers right now, but I know I’ll carry my Drop-In volunteer experiences with me when I talk about button styles and other standard UI components at work.

Donating to charity

This post describes my own personal experiences and might only be relevant to people with similarly comfortable incomes. They’re arguably the ones who need this conversation more, since poor people tend to donate more of their income.

I started regularly donating money to charity after I graduated from college and started my first full-time job. I was raised to be mindful of the opportunities I had received and the role that luck played in my life. It felt obvious that I should share what I had with others. I looked for registered nonprofits that supported causes I felt personally invested in, wrote them paper checks, then gathered up my receipts to deduct them from my taxes.

It was very easy for me to get started back then because I was sharing a two-bedroom apartment with two other people and paying recession-era rents. Even after saving for retirement, I had plenty of discretionary income, so it was just a matter of setting a donation goal and tracking whether or not I reached it. I decided to try to maximize my company match: if they matched $500, I would donate $500. I didn’t meet my goal every year, but I liked this approach as a way to check in with myself every December. Having a concrete number helped me decide whether I had really done what I set out to do.

When I changed jobs and my new employer no longer offered matching funds, I looked for alternative models. I am an ardent atheist, but I liked some of the things I read about tithing. It seemed similar enough to the corporate model of giving away 1% of profits, and it had the advantage of scaling up with my income. The problem with donating a flat amount was that the tech industry and my own career were both growing, so continuing to donate only $500 would be an increasingly stingy move.

In the past two years, I’ve been comfortably meeting my donation goals, both in company match utilization and in percentage of my income. I’ve been reading about other people’s donation philosophies to inform my thinking. Here are a few sources I’ve found helpful:

Here’s what I’m considering for 2018 and beyond: allocate the entirety of my N% charity budget to statistically effective things like GiveWell, then donate another large chunk of money to things that are a more direct expression of my values. For example, I believe that forced birth policies are a violation of people’s right to control their own bodies. It’s against my morals to impose arbitrary waiting periods and unnecessary exams just to create financial barriers to abortion. One way I can act on this is to give money directly to pregnant people who cannot afford abortions. I could also donate to a group that does education and outreach to connect people with the healthcare they need, or donate to a politician who’s committed to defend these rights.

I haven’t figured out the details, and I’m especially unsure how much I should allocate to each type of giving. Should I keep giving N% and find another N%, doubling the amount I’m giving away to others? Should more of my dollars be dedicated to efficiency or to my personal values? Does it matter whether all of it is tax deductible, or should I allocate more to lobbying and direct aid? Either way, I’ll need to check in with myself at the end of the year to see if it’s gone well.