Teacakes and tablets

I’m forever trying to learn new things. It’s one of the things I love most about working on the web—there’s something new to learn every single day.

This month, I’ve spent a lot of my time learning React. Now, I talk a lot of 💩 about Javascript, and I’m not shy to admit that I suck at it. I can never figure out when I need a semicolon or a curly brace or maybe a bracket. It takes me ages to make anything work. I basically spend an hour writing console.log('hello') until it works. (Spoiler alert: it never works.)

So I figured that being able to kinda suss out React and actually make something with it—without having some kind of mental break—was going to be my #1 accomplishment of learning and development for the month. Probably for the year. It might well be the accomplishment of my life.

Turns out I learned more in two hours helping a senior citizen edit photos on her tablet than I did in a month of learning Javascript.

“Wait, you’re doing what?”

When I lived in Montreal, I volunteered with Ladies Learning Code, a great organisation that runs workshops to help teach women (and the occasional man as well) coding skills. I loved helping with the workshops, and I’m always on the lookout for something similar in the UK. So when I noticed a poster asking for volunteers for the Scottish Seniors Computer Club at my local WordCamp over the weekend, I sent a quick email to offer my services. The next day, I found myself trekking to a library across town, worried that my technical skills might not be good enough to be of any use.

Now, I’ll admit I was a little wary. I live in a country where—to generalise broadly—our future has been severely compromised by the elderly, in a referendum result spurred largely by racism and ignorance. I sometimes struggle with feelings of anger at a demographic who are effectively stripping me of rights and citizenship I’ve had my whole life.

Empathy doesn’t come naturally to me. Left to my own devices I’d probably make Ayn Rand look like Mother Theresa, but I’m trying to learn to be more empathetic, and I thought this was a good opportunity. Empathy, like most other things, is a quality you can learn, and it’s something I’ve been trying to learn. (It may or may not be harder than Javascript.)

Meet Edith

Edith has arthritis in her hands and usually uses a disposable film camera to take photos. But developing film is becoming more expensive, difficult, and time-consuming. Often, she doesn’t even have a chance to finish a roll of film before she gets it developed. Edith knows that using a tablet is a better solution for her in the long run, but she’s struggling.


The size of the tablet makes it difficult for her to hold it stable, and when she taps the shutter button, the shaking in her hands often inadvertently activates burst mode. When I showed up, she had twenty-three identical photos of a loch up in Perthshire. Pretty, but maybe too many.

Together, we learnt how to identify that a photo was actually a series of “burst” shots, and how to go in and remove photos she didn’t want anymore. When we were finished, she’d gotten rid of thirty-six duplicate images, and she’d learned how to favourite images so she can easily find them when she takes them to Tesco to print.

Watching her use a tablet was an illuminating experience—if I were a designer at Apple, I’d have gone home with a laundry list of to-dos: bigger touch targets, more discoverable search, better photo preview, rethink that photo strip at the bottom entirely, etc etc. She used a combination stylus/pen that was pretty neat, but I noticed she struggled with the interface elements at the top—often she’d inadvertently touch something on the screen beneath when trying to tap a button up top.

She also turned on Siri accidentally all the time, which made her jump. (Me too!) I turned it off so at least it wouldn’t make noises and frighten her all the time!


I had her try the Pop Socket attached to the back of my phone, which I use mostly to appease my penchant for fidgeting and to annoy everyone around me. The stickiness had worn off a bit so it didn’t hold the tablet well, but it seemed like a (proper sticky) one would help at least a little. I promised to bring her a new one, and she offered me a stylus/pen in exchange.

Promotion, spam, or actual thing?

BT had sent Edith a promotional email offering her a deal on an upgrade to unlimited broadband, and she was worried her new iPad was eating into her allowance. I looked at the email and explained it was just a bulk promotion (her inbox was 90% mass-mailings) and not something she needed to worry about.

It struck me that, while younger people navigate the constant bombardment of input and advertisement with discretion, those of us who didn’t grow up with it struggle with understanding what’s what. A quick look at the SSCC’s blog—almost entirely comprised of warnings about various scams—confirms this.

Would I do it again?

It wasn’t really the most glamorous way to spend my day. I didn’t learn some trendy new technology, or have an opportunity to design something super groundbreaking or super beautiful.

But I did learn a lot, and I’m going to try to go back once a month. Eventually, I’m sure someone will want to make a website, and then I’ll be going home with a massive to-do list.

Oh, and Edith wasn’t a rabid Brexiteer. She told me stories about an autistic child the US was trying to extradite for some (relatively) harmless hacking and how awful that was. She talked about the European Charter of Human Rights as though human rights weren’t this pesky thing preventing her from buying the best bananas.

And if nothing else, hey, I won’t say no to free teacakes.



By sarah semark

Sarah is a designer who codes. She likes building things and fixing things, and believes that good criticism is vital to making the things you love better. She is most likely to be found working in an airport, cursing at her screen and making odd faces.