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.

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