Research portfolio

Hack for LA, Expunge Assist: product-focused user research, usability testing

February 2022 – present

Expunge Assist is a volunteer-run project at Hack for LA, a regional brigade of Code for America, the non-profit civic tech organization. Expunge Assist is building a letter generator that will guide people in writing personal statements to include in their applications for criminal record clearance. As a member of the UX Research Team, I’ve completed desk research, implemented usability testing, identified pain points in the MVP, and analyzed and presented research findings into a written report and PPT for stakeholders (PMs and the ED). Currently, as co-lead, I’m designing the next phase of research, aligning our research goals and questions with product development milestones, and coordinating and communicating with stakeholders on other teams (Design, Content, PMs, the ED) along the way. I also strategize workflow and assign tasks within the UXR Team.

Expunge Assist landing page for beta testing, August 2022

The Exploratorium: user experience research on interactive science exhibits

March 2018 – March 2020

As an on-call researcher with the Visitor Research and Evaluation department, I conducted and recorded interviews and surveys with visitors (including open-ended and semi-structured interviews, and appropriate non-leading clarifying questions), entered and coded research data, and gave actionable feedback to shareholders (e.g., exhibit developers; research designers) regarding the research instruments and methods and exhibits’ visitor engagement.

A visitor using an exhibit at Middle Ground, SF Public Library, 2018 (Photo credit: the Exploratorium)

A case study: The goal of Middle Ground, an NSF-funded project, was to enhance STEM learning in informal environments—specifically to bring social psychology to public urban spaces in San Francisco. In the fall of 2018, the Exploratorium set up a learning installation on the front plaza of the Main Branch of San Francisco Public Library in the heart of the city’s Civic Center to test out various exhibit designs for the final installation. The exhibits engaged the public in social observation and participatory learning on the science of social polarization, social dilemmas, and social norms. Anyone could approach and use the exhibits. As a data collector for this project, I was part of a small team that conducted 525 observations and 301 interviews (cued and uncued), over 13 days throughout three months. As data collectors, we also shared feedback with research leads and exhibit designers and entered and coded the data. We assessed exhibit usage, affordances, holding time, sequences of use, and visitor experiences of confusion, understanding, and affective responses, as well as visitors’ preferred titles for the project. The data we collected determined which exhibits to include in the final installation, refined exhibits to optimize user engagement and promote a positive learning experience, and helped designers choose the final title for the project, based on users’ preferences.

Dovetail Labs: foundational research on the ethics of emerging technology (VR/AR; digital identity)

November 2018 – February 2019

I was contracted as a researcher and writer by Dovetail Labs (a consultancy focused on ethics and culture) to investigate the ethical and political effects of two emerging technologies in regions outside North America. Our client was a leading technology company whose identity is protected by an NDA. (Although the final deliverables are proprietary, the topics were not.) This was primarily foundational desk research, plus expert interviews. The problem was loosely defined by the client, so I suggested two specific topics, which the client approved. The audience for these reports were high-level decision-makers who wanted an in-depth understanding of the potential ethical and political repercussions of their technologies. I worked independently, with a deadline. I began with the conceptual questions to frame the empirical research, followed by searches for the relevant scholarly literature, reading that literature, and then synthesizing, structuring, and writing up the findings so it was clear, comprehensive, and usable.

Deliverables included:
• an abstract
• an introduction to the region
• an overview of science and technology in each region, as relevant to the technology being addressed
• summaries of relevant scholarship, which breakdowns and explanations as to why it’s relevant in this context
• a brief conclusion
• an annotated bibliography and complete bibliography
plus: an executive summary (digest) of the comprehensive reports
plus: an expert interview with a South African scholar of science and technology studies, specifically information technologies, government, and citizenship
plus: two articles for a client-facing blog on AI in cultural and political sectors; including a Hebrew-to-English translation

ToD Innovation Lab- Credit - Ricky Rachman
VR use at the Tower of David Innovation Lab in Jerusalem (Photo credit: Ricky Rachman)

The first report looked at current uses of virtual and augmented reality in Israel-Palestine, and made predictions of future applications. I began by asking, “What areas of Israeli and Palestinian society are most notably shaped by visual media and technology? What areas already incorporate VR/AR technology? What areas are most likely to adopt this technology going forward?” Naturally, the ongoing military conflict was a focus of this research. I drew on my in-depth knowledge of the region in navigating this topic.

The most notable sectors in Israel/Palestine where VR/AR is already, or is likely to be, adopted were:
• the military and homeland security
• tourism (including archeological, heritage, and religious sites)
• international news and local journalism

Elbit_Systems_to_provide_Aviators_Night_Vision_Imaging_System_Head-Up_Display_to_U.S._Army_helicopter_pilots-Picture source- Source- Elbit Systems
An Elbit “heads-up” device for military use (Photo credit: Elbit Systems)

I concluded that VR/AR will likely further compartmentalize points of view (literally and figuratively) in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by enhancing technologically mediated visual imaginaries that create strongly felt political allegiances. In short, it is unlikely to change anything dramatically but will likely deepen the power of visual media and technology in the region and coming out of the region. 

The second report was a completely new topic for me: ID4Africa, a pan-African association promoting digital identity in African countries, but more broadly, digital identity across Africa (yes, all of Africa—even though Africa is not a country!). Given the breadth and diversity of the areas covered in this topic, I organized my report conceptually, by arguments for and against digital identity in Africa, and then I presented a case study on Ghana.

Issuing biometric ID cards to Somali citizens (Photo credit: Tobin Jones, 2014)

In this report, I aimed for clarity on the overarching questions, arguments, and sticking points in the debates on digital identity in Africa. My original questions were: How is digital identity defined by scholars? How is the term used by developers? How it digital technology actually being used on the ground? What do citizens/users think of the technology? (There’s very little research done on the latter questions; I extrapolated from what I found.)

Findings: (1) biometric identification is implied by digital identity in this context; (2) digital identity and biometric identification is viewed as a means to fortify the workings of the state government (e.g., voting; receiving government benefits) and commercial banks (e.g., opening bank accounts). Supporters argue that digital identity will make peoples’ lives easier, safer, and ultimately more plentiful, and it appears that many people in Africa believe this argument and trust in the power of this technology to improve their lives. Critics focused on the types of biometric identification that can be non-consensually gathered and applied, as well as the potential effects of mishaps (“goats”) when such a technology is applied at such a massive scale. I broke down the reasoning behind these positions in detail.

Further questions: What might be the significance of this technology to the incorporation of African economies into global markets? What might be the ramifications of private companies administering digital identity systems in Africa? Issues of surveillance, state and corporate power, civil liberties, investment in education (e.g., literacy), and global inequality were central themes in this report, and underlying these, the historical effects of European colonialism on underdevelopment in Africa. I published a summary of this research on Medium.

Dissertation research on DIY mycologists: ethnography of an amateur science community

October 2011 – October 2018

As a PhD candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology, I carried out in-depth research on the emergent subculture of do-it-yourself (DIY) mycology, concentrated in urban areas on the West Coast. As the sole (principal) researcher, I designed and conducted 2+ years of qualitative research, and then coded, analyzed, and wrote up the research as a dissertation (443 pages). I published several articles on the topic for academic and general audiences.

The culture of DIY mycology is characterized by enthusiasm for and fascination with the fungal kingdom that is expressed through communal activities like forays and mushroom cultivation and DIY experimentation with applied mycology. Why and how do fungi come to matter to participants? What motivates them to get involved, and then stay involved, in this community? How do they adapt modern lab techniques and the scientific method to their goals? What are the affective and social dimensions of this unique interspecies relationship?

These questions engaged with ongoing scholarly discussions on human-nonhuman relationships, the force of nonhuman life forms in shaping human social, cultural, and economic life, and scientific practice outside of scientific institutions (for-profit labs; universities). They were framed by theoretical inquiries into interspecies relationships between human and nonhuman life forms in the Anthropocene (the era of human-caused climate change and ecological disruption), with a focus on amateur science.

Research process, deliverable, and outcomes:

  • Literature review: desk research into the history of these particular practices, related and comparable practices, and the culture from which they emerged
  • Fieldwork:
    • In-depth interviews: learning about participants life paths (user journeys) to discover the personal and cultural history of the values and interests; generalizing paths (personas) and conceptual themes from these individual stories
    • Contextual inquiry: accompanying interlocutors as they foraged for mushrooms in the local forests, in the community lab where they cultivated and experimented with applied mycology, in their homes where they had their own cultivation set-ups; observing how they learned, navigated, and used tools; inquiring into their reasoning and motivations as they went about these activities.
  • Analysis and writing-up: I spent several months organizing (coding), analyzing, and writing up this research, in consultation with my dissertation advisor and committee members (stakeholders).
  • Deliverable: a dissertation.
  • Outcomes:
    • PhD conferred (October, 2018)
    • I published several articles for academic and general audiences; I co-edited an academic series on related topics.
    • I organized, presented on, and chaired panels at several Anthropology and Science & Technology Studies conferences.
    • I applied my knowledge as a communication consultant at MycoWorks, a fungal biomaterial start-up and creator of Fine Mycelium™.