“With CTN, it’s really nice to be able to work towards technology having a positive impact on the day-to-day lives of San Franciscans and Bay Area residents through digital coaching.” — Mary Grace Reich, volunteer digital coach
Introducing technology to digital novices has been a key part of Mary Grace’s work for several years. After graduating college, she joined the Peace Corps and spent two years teaching English in Namibia. The school she worked at had recently acquired wireless internet, and most of her colleagues and students had never used it before. Although this work was challenging at times, the experience left Mary Grace feeling hopeful about the power technology could provide communities.
Upon returning to the U.S., Mary Grace began working with a global nonprofit organization that partnered with libraries and librarians to improve access and benefit from technology. She then took a job with a tech startup in hopes of creating a more immediate positive impact in the realm of global development. The startup focuses on crowdsourcing data globally by paying people to partake in surveys and observational tasks. What’s motivating about this work, Mary Grace says, is that it “gives a voice to people that aren’t often included in surveys and communities whose resources aren’t mapped to better understand where the needs are.”
At the startup, Mary Grace focuses on their mobile app’s user experience — that is, how are people actually engaging with the technology? Because a lot of the users are digital novices or using old phones with poor connections, Mary Grace is constantly considering how to design a product to include people of a range of backgrounds. This work has led her to pursue a master’s in information management and systems at UC Berkeley. With a focus on human-computer interaction, Mary Grace applies research methods to better understand how people are using technology, how it’s impacting them, and how to make it better.
Alongside Mary Grace’s studies and work, she desired to give back to the broader San Francisco community — especially to those who are not included in the city’s prominent tech industry. She came across CTN’s digital coaching program after looking for opportunities to utilize her skills and tech experience. It was evident that Mary Grace would make an excellent digital coach, and we were lucky to have her join the team!
Over the past year, Mary Grace has worked one-on-one with older adult learners in our virtual Home Connect program. This experience has proved to be quite grounding for her. At work, she is often considering how thousands of users are engaging with a particular product. When working with Home Connect learners, she can better understand an individual’s lived experience of using technology as a newcomer.
In one of her classes, Mary Grace conducted a qualitative research project aimed at understanding the motivations of CTN learners and their digital coaches. One of her primary findings was just how valuable the connection was between senior learners and younger digital coaches — regardless of how much they talked about their personal lives or not.
“In the past, a lot of the senior learners had experiences where they were made to feel inadequate or slow,” Mary Grace reflects. “ I think there’s a sense of sort of personal vulnerability for the learners to be like asking for help, yet they all expressed how incredibly patient their digital coaches were and how much the digital coaches created a space where they didn’t have to worry about being slow or forgetting something.”
Mary Grace’s research project also provided her with useful insights into product design. She found that many learners struggled with the same icons across different platforms, yet those who grew up with technology may not realize that these features are barriers. The personalized environment fostered between digital coaches and learners allows for these needs and struggles to come to light.
“I appreciate being able to take what I’ve studied and worked on then use it one-on-one with someone who’s learning new products and new types of technology for the first time,” Mary Grace says. “I’m constantly reflecting on the usability of a product, imagining who might use a product, and defining what it would look like to consider the perspective of a digital novice. I think my experience with my senior learners gives a lot of perspective on that.”
Upon graduating, Mary Grace hopes to continue asking questions about people’s use of technology as a user experience designer or researcher. For now, CTN is lucky to have Mary Grace’s passion and thoughtfulness on our volunteer team!