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Beta Reading, or, I'm Dumber Than I Think


I consider myself a pretty smart person. I can spell most words I know without looking them up. I'm mildly proficient in three or four different (though all C-based) programming languages. Free tests around the Internet tell me I have an IQ in the 140s because I can unscramble words and perform basic math. Of course, they also tell me that if I were a Pokémon, I would be a Bulbasaur, which is patently ridiculous. I am obviously a Torchic.

Despite my indisputable brilliance, I regularly do dumb things. The other day I used the wrong tool to open a bottle of sparkling apple cider. I slipped into the sharp aluminum cap and cut myself. A better, more stable bottle opener lay on the counter next to me, so what did I do? I tried to use the wrong tool again, and again, until I had three now-infected gashes on my forefinger.

There's no symbolism to this mundane anecdote; it is simply an illustration of my surprising propensity for stupidity. And it doesn't stop at temporary lapses of judgment in my choice of kitchen utensil. Even if I work very, very hard on something over many months, I can make errors that, in retrospect, were so glaringly obvious that I would have laughed if someone else was responsible.

For my big semester project in Human-Computer Interaction this year, my group designed a game to teach college students about cooking healthily on a budget. I was in charge of the central game play, in which the player would buy ingredients and practice recipes in a virtual kitchen. To obtain ingredients, the hypothetical player would open the magic refrigerator, select and "purchase" foods with limited funds, much as they would any e-store in real life. To place ingredients into a bowl or appliance, the player would click and drag icons around the screen. It was all very intuitive...until they had to perform actions on those ingredients.

Cooking Student Prototype Screen

Imagine standing in your kitchen, looking at a bowl of dough, and shouting, "Rise! Rise!" Because that is essentially what I was asking the player to do in this design. But despite hours of group discussion, tweaking the prototypes in AI, and reviewing basic HCI principles to produce this idea, I didn't realize how ridiculous the approach was until I put printouts in the hands of college students and asked for feedback. Obviously, you don't make dough rise by telling it to rise. You don't flatten it by telling it to "Roll Out," either. You seize a rolling pin and wrestle with the dough until it assumes the shape you want. Any five year-old could tell you that.

Now this mundane anecdote does have symbolism: it's analogous to the review process in writing. Even in my light, slang-laced adolescent trifle, I have some iota of pride about representing realistic people and scenarios. I finished my first manuscript, read it over for typos, and packaged it up to show to "beta-readers." Within a few hours, Sweetie had isolated a half-dozen typos and plot holes I thought I had sewn up water-tight. He had a very negative reaction to a love interest I had intended to be cute and charming, who upon reflection would make me run screaming for the police instead of giving me the warm fuzzies. Full scene rewrites were obviously required.

But the flaws would never have been obvious if I hadn't briefly considered the possibility that I am not perfect. After all, I'd spent half a year on this thing. How many times had I pored over it with a fine-toothed comb for errors? I was even confident enough to send it off to my PhD-holding mother for a stamp of approval (or at least a stamp of: "It was okay; you'll get better with time and maturity").

Everyone makes stupid mistakes sometimes. Fortunately, I have people to catch those mistakes before I broadcast them to the rest of the planet.

Edit: Upon reading this post, Sweetie informs me that the last line sounds cheesy. I am changing it to read, "And they lived happily ever after. The End."


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