I recently built and published an android app. I had a number of experiments in mind as part of this. Some of those experiments were big, and others were small.
zen is a deliberatively simple mobile app that does almost nothing at all -- it just recommends a sample of relatively healthy activities, written in a short form like "drink water".
The intention behind the offerings is to aid with mindfulness. Mindfulness as a topic was one of the experiments, and so was the fact that the app does almost nothing at all.
I worked at Palantir from January 2019 until two days ago. I sometimes felt that I wasn't learning much. But in hindsight, it's mostly just that I didn't learn much technically. On the other hand, I developed a lot in terms of soft skills. I am not talking about writing better emails -- I'm talking about things like product strategy, behavioral psychology, cognitive science, and decision-making.
One of the things that caught my attention at Palantir was that it's possible to work on things that really matter. When I say "possible", I'm not just talking about a physical capability, but something more like: software engineers can reasonably and practically focus on humanity's real and biggest problems, profitably, ethically, and in direct competition with the FAANG job market.
This brings me to my overarching experiment.
Hypothesis: it is possible for me (an individual) to meaningfully work on something that matters to humanity in my free time.
As boring as an android app sounds, I actually thought about this for days. What are humanity's biggest problems? Which ones could I realistically move the needle on by myself? What's a practical and low-investment way to make a difference?
I could only spare a few hours total on this project, so I did have to be quite critical as to what would be suitable.
I decided pretty quickly on mental health. This was during the ongoing COVID pandemic. I read a number of articles about the projected long-term impact on children who were stuck schooling remotely via video conference, which led me to believe that mental health issues for youth will continue to be a problem in the near future.
I had previously used an app called "noom" -- broadly related to mental health, but more focused on the cognitive science of self-control and habits. I think that service is on the right track, but there were many things that I disliked about it (and some things that made me rage).
As I thought about the problem space and my expeience with noom, I decided that there was a product gap for a mobile app which can be opened from time-to-time in a low-stress way.
This led me to my first sub-experiment within the project.
Hypothesis: it is possible to build an app that people use, share, and return to without behavioral manipulation. That means no notifications, no gamification, no "sharing" infrastructure, no socialisation, no advertisements, and no data harvesting.
At this point I felt enthusiastic. I had an idea, a direction, and constraints. I was going to build a mindfulness app related to self-control with an express focus on simplicity and privacy/civil liberties.
I made more decisions whilst building the app, but those were mostly focused on learning experiments and random ideas rather than concerted goals. For example:
crwi.uk gave me (surprisingly) deep and detailed user feedback on zen. Thanks again!