LEAP Dialogues: Career Pathways in Design for Social Innovation

Edited by Mariana Amatullo, Bryan Boyer, Liz Danzico, & Andrew Shea

360 pages, Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design, 2016

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This is SSIR’s second excerpt from LEAP Dialogues, by Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design, in which 84 designers, educators, and thought-leaders discuss the challenges and opportunities of social innovation design. In our first excerpt, IDEO.org’s Jocelyn Wyatt and Jeff Wishnie, formerly of Mercy Corps and now with the Digital Impact Alliance, discussed how NGOs can integrate design thinking into their work. This dialogue features Mollie Ruskin and Jessica Teal, designers for the United States Digital Service at the White House.

Jessica Teal: At the root, designers are advocates for the user. We ensure that the user and his/her needs take center stage in a technology solution. We help answer questions like: What is the problem? What are the user needs and wants? What are the key things that the user wants to accomplish? What information is critical, supplemental or unnecessary when solving for a particular user need? What solutions to this problem already exist? How is user behavior affected by previous experiences and other common web interfaces? How can we structure the experience so it is efficient and easy to use? How can we create a visual design that supports the content and helps the user accomplish their task without getting in the way?

As designers, we’ll know if we’ve done our job well if our design goes unnoticed. The design should just feel core to the solution itself—whether the solution is a website, an application, a brochure, or some other output. If we’ve done our jobs correctly, we will have created a design that solves a specific problem; is well researched; is easy for people to use; is optimized for the medium; and is visually consistent and cohesive.

Mollie Ruskin: I love hearing how different designers think of our role. I very much agree with all of your points, Jess. Yet, while all of this rings true and indeed feels like the function of our role, I find that our work goes beyond the promise of delivering beautiful user-centered products and services, and enters into organizational culture change.

There are incredible, passionate, and dedicated people who work inside of government—many of whom are essentially designers without realizing as much. And yet, the constraints and challenges—in policy, regulation, myth, and mindset—keep government programs from creating the kind of world-class experiences we want the American people to have.

Personally, I find that designers are able to help nudge and wield our tools in such a way that we’re able to not just design services, but also help existing teams break through constraints to figure out how to really solve user needs. In this sense, the role of designers is, again, all of what you’ve listed but also to demystify what design means and make real and tangible what is possible.

What roles can we highlight that designers play now, and how do we think those roles could evolve in the future?

Jessica: Right now, common designer roles in the government include user researcher/ethnographer, information architect, user experience designer, visual designer, and interaction designer/front-end developer. But frequently designers in the government will take on more than one of these roles, depending on resources and the project. You will likely need to wear a lot of hats as well as collaborate closely with non-designers, like content creators, policy makers, and developers. After all, a proper, well-thought-out design solution must take all of these aspects into consideration.

Mollie: I agree. As in many other parts of the design industry, we’re seeing roles blend together and our skills become more about what we wield as a strategic Swiss Army knife. This is the “T-shaped designer” idea: that we’re specialized generalists and can help not only build flows and create beautiful data visualizations, but increasingly help to tell stories, to develop product strategies to shape programmatic and policy direction.

At the end of the day, we want full teams taking people-centered approaches to public service design, not just the designers.

Inside the government, I see the role of designers evolving more into places of leadership. I’ve seen quite a few designers quickly grow into the roles of making product decisions or taking on project management. Particularly for our teams, where we’re still learning about where the blurry edges of lean UX, agile development, and user-centered design meet, we’re seeing more and more designers take on other aspects of successful product delivery.

And perhaps not surprisingly, I think that more and more we’re seeing program managers and project leaders take on traits and skills of designers—which really is the point at the end of the day. After all, we want full teams taking on people-centered approaches to public service design, not just the designers!

Little by Little

Jessica: I was intimately involved with a project called College Scorecard that design strongly influenced. It is a tool aimed at helping students of any age or background, and those who support and advise them, to find schools best suited to them. The project was a joint effort among the Department of Education, the White House, the US Digital Service, and 18F. As you can imagine, with the number of stakeholders involved, there were many opinions on what features and functionality the tool should include at launch. However, led by a user-centered design process, we launched with a minimum viable product (MVP) that consisted of the core features only—features determined in initial phases of user research in testing. The MVP allowed us to get something in front of actual users as soon as possible to truly test how they were interacting with the tool, and to collect the maximum amount of validated learning with the least amount of effort. This insight helps us decide what features should be considered and prioritized for future releases. And those decisions were made based on actual user needs—versus internal politics and assumptions about user behavior. A design-led process like this helps us obtain the highest return on investment with the lowest amount of risk, and that results in tremendous time and cost savings for the government.

I’m sure you have some other great examples, Mollie.

Mollie: Earlier this fall, Bob McDonald, the Secretary of the Veterans Administration addressed Congress and held up a customer journey map to document the pain-points veterans experience when enrolling in the VA’s services.

Secretary Bob (as he likes to be called) has been a major advocate for a quiet movement that has been stirring at the VA to bring a human-centered design service angle to encourage large organizational improvement. What started as a scrappy design research project to collect stories about VA services has made way for large-scale efforts with UX and design at the forefront. We now have a team consolidating thousands of VA websites into a single site, designed in direct response to user needs. Another team is looking at the entirety of the end-to-end service delivery experience of the VA from the perspective of veterans and their families, honing in on touch-points and interactions to design, prototype, and iterate upon. Little by little, application processes are becoming less cumbersome, communications easier to understand, websites more user-friendly.

Ultimately, our most important metric is measured by real improvements to people’s lives. But progress is slow, so we look for other indicators. To have one of the most visible leaders of this administration—who is responsible for a heavily scrutinized organization that has received harsh public feedback for delivering what many to be considered unacceptably poor customer experience—when this man shares the ways in which we’re using design tools to build better services, well that is really something. Design is part of the solution. Progress is upon us.

And that progress reinforces what we often say, that government is an opportunity-rich environment for designers. So let’s talk about what this means for actual careers. Inside the federal government, there are a growing number of real job opportunities. All of the new teams in the digital coalition—specifically 18F and the US Digital Service—are heavily recruiting designers.

Jessica: Yes, and there are also long-term and short-term (1 to 2 year) opportunities. There are so many areas where you can apply your skills and transform the ways that millions of people interact with the American government. By taking on this challenge, you can directly impact how millions of people get access to affordable healthcare, obtain financial aid, apply for Veterans benefits, navigate the immigration process, and check their tax refund status. And those are just a few examples!

Mollie: Lots of other agencies, like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the General Services Administration, hire designers on a regular basis for full-time positions. Also, there are often more specialized design teams embedded in the senior communications/public affairs groups at each federal agency, who are often looking for web designers and graphic designers. The White House, for example, has the Office of Digital Strategy, which has an incredible creative team with openings from time to time.

Then there are programs like Code for America and the Presidential Innovation Fellow, which give folks a more time-limited, year-long experience diving into a specific challenge. Code for America works at the city and state level, and also has very cool opportunities for designers to volunteer their skills to contribute to local civic projects.

What are some other ways you would encourage civically intrigued designers to get involved?

Jessica: I would also encourage designers interested in entering the public sector to look for positions with nonprofit, advocacy, and philanthropic organizations. In addition to sharpening your design skills, you’ll learn how to better engage your users, encourage action, collaborate with all parts of the organization, build consensus, and measure results—all with limited resources and budget. That’s how I got my start!

Additionally, designers might also want to consider heading into the private sector and working with a respected government contractor. Through this work, you’ll likely gain exposure to a variety of government agencies and types of work—everything from designing brochure websites to creating streamlined interfaces for large, complicated applications.

Mollie: I think it would be very cool to see academic design programs start to think about the public sector opportunities for designers a bit more. We’ve seen a lot of growth in the design industry in the past 10 years toward “social innovation.” I myself am the product of a School of Visual Arts program with this kind of focus. I hope some of these programs can evolve to help train designers for what is clearly a growing need in government, to create more partnerships and testing ground, to keep the talent pipeline fresh, but also to keep nudging government toward always doing better.

Culture Shock

Jessica: For positions in the Digital Coalition, we are looking for designers who are not only used to change, but can lead change. Additionally, our designers must be good communicators, collaborators, and consensus builders. They should have a good grasp of all parts of the strategy, design, and development process to be able to determine where they can input the most value.

I would also say that you should gain exposure and base-level knowledge of the non-design aspects of the product development process—things like digital engagement strategy, content strategy, data management, web development, quality assurance, etc. After all, your design solution will need to incorporate all of these aspects, and you will be working side-by-side with these subject-matter experts. It is extremely important to be able to speak the same language and have the same baseline understanding of best practices and industry standards to work as an effective, efficient team.

Mollie: I couldn’t agree more. So much of our work inside government has a technology bent to it that getting comfortable with web development terminology and processes can go a long way. I feel lucky I’ve had generous colleagues who’ve helped me stumble through learning on the job, but looking back, I wish I’d taken a class or two to tighten up my very feeble coding skills, and that I’d had experience with agile product development.

So much of what has held teams back is neither raw talent nor legal restrictions, but rather of myths about what is and isn’t possible, and a lack of empowerment among people making design decisions.

Now, once you’ve surmounted the challenges of preparing for and getting a government job, they’ll be challenges in that job, as well. I can’t speak for all designers, but there is a very real perception of red tape, a culture of “no,” and endless hurdles and barriers in the government.

To varying levels, all of these things are real. There are lots of design constraints which exist inside of government—extra steps we have to take, rules we have to account for, levels of sign-off we have to get before things can see the light of day. But so much of what has held teams back is neither raw talent nor legal restrictions, but rather an interesting combination of myths about what is and isn’t possible, and a lack of empowerment among people making design decisions.

To the first point, so very many things are possible in government, but for whatever reason there’s a good bit of misinterpretation that goes on that makes things seem harder than they are. (My theory is that this largely stems from the good intention of making sure taxpayer dollars are being used wisely and as intended.) Once you learn what constraints are real, and which have been falsely erected, then so much becomes possible!

There are incredible people who have been working tirelessly for decades amidst all kinds of challenges to bring the best possible care and services to the American people. Often, for all sorts of reasons, they are given the power to experiment, to run with an idea, to try stuff out—but they become afraid to fail, and innovation and execution stagnates. But just as often, when these folks are reminded of their awesomeness and encouraged to take what might be perceived as risks, great things can and do result.

Jessica: Perception is definitely a huge part of how people think about the government, whether or not that perception jibes with the reality. As for usefulness of design in government, I would say that the perception is expanding and improving! And that is hopeful! For a long time, I think folks really only thought of designers as visual designers, and that the practice of design was just making something “look pretty.” Now, folks are catching onto the fact that design is not just cosmetic—it is strategic. Design is not just something you do as a step in the process. Design must be a part of the overall strategic solution from the onset of a project.

Also worth noting is that data has become a designer’s best friend. Previously, because design is something that is tangible (you can see it and interact with it), the door was open for anyone to weigh in on decisions and be an “expert” on design simply because they could express an opinion about it (e.g. “When I showed this to my grandma, she said she didn’t like the color green. Therefore we should change it to orange.”). By integrating data (qualitative and quantitative) into our design solutions, there can be an objectively “right” or “wrong” answer to something. This lifts the validity of design as science. With data-backed design solutions at the table, we can defend our choices, weed out the subjective voices, and make objective, well-informed design decisions.