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How to Design City Technology with Community

In the first half of the 20th century, educators and theorists like Paulo Friere, John Dewey, Myles Horton, and Antoni Gramsci were credited for birthing popular education. This is a ‘dialectic’ approach to learning that is driven by empowering people through real examples and collectively solve problems. The power distinctions between teachers and students are blurred. Instead, everyone with a common goal teaches, and everyone learns.

A cornerstone of popular education is participatory or ‘community action research.’ You don’t become educated without doing, and knowledge is meaningless without implementation. When applied to modern concepts, this often can look like citizen science, open-source governance, or Web 2.0.

Is there a way for the government to minimize power dynamics in digital design and maximize the opportunities of digital city services through a similar approach?

The rise of ‘user experience’ research and design may give us some clues.

In 1995, Don Norman of the Nielson (now Nielson/Norman) marketing group, joined Apple as its first ‘User Experience Architect.’ Norman introduced a host of research techniques that included non-directed interviews, contextual inquiry, questionnaires, card sorting, and ethnographic research. According to Nielson/Norman,

“‘User experience’ encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products. The first requirement for an exemplary user experience is to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother. Next comes simplicity and elegance that produce products that are a joy to own, a joy to use. True user experience goes far beyond giving customers what they say they want, or providing checklist features. In order to achieve high-quality user experience in a company’s offerings there must be a seamless merging of the services of multiple disciplines, including engineering, marketing, graphical and industrial design, and interface design.”

An Apple alum, Don Norman created a framework within which much of technology was developed, including the first iPhone, which released in 2007. The critical element is that UX designers and researchers fundamentally change the way we build our digital services and tools. They also change who benefits from the technology we create. Designers work with product managers and developers to dictate features and the digital realities of the users they serve.

The inherent problem is that when UX design applied to public interest technology, the designer is often divorced from the intricate context needed to build an actual digital service. More importantly, the knowledge of how to contest a parking ticket, find affordable housing, or advocate for a policy is not information you can acquire in a sprint.

But, there are a few ways we can approach this challenge in government.

First, designers need to be a long-term part of the organization. Governments, and particularly local governments, often hire designers as fleeting parts of their organization. These hires are often people that do not possess the same level of need as the communities they are trying to impact. Often hired as contracted expert labor, these design teams are set up to build small narrow projects, web “portals,” and apps that often miss the broader constituent experience.

Harvard Business School reported that people with digital expertise did not manage the most successful digital projects. Instead, long-time insiders that understood the business most successfully led these projects. Understanding the business of government isn’t something that comes in a few weeks of project work.

Second, we need to hire designers based on their ability to do the job, not their design pedigree. Similarly, experience working at a design firm affords technical expertise, but it lacks a track record of embedding change in large, complex organizations. While the design process seems to be owned by people with fancy design degrees or sourced from technology boot camps, a real ‘build with, not for’ approach rooted with people who understand the city they serve. Governments may need to relinquish control of the design process to the people most marginalized and hire them for this critical design work.

While “UX” work is core to digital innovations, community organizers and activists have been going to ‘users’ for years, employing various methods to gain insights about inefficient public processes. Understanding the public process from the outside is at the core of any successful digital transformation process. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t hire people that have a talent for designing organized flows, beautiful pages, and interactions. Still, it does mean that we should diversify the expertise represented on any given government design team.

Governments have a lot to learn from the tech industry, but its lack of diversity is not an attribute we want to adopt.

In Oakland, we’ve made a concerted effort to hire and find the best and brightest talent committed to the city through our Design League. The members of the team are the heart of our city’s approach to digital services — one that is scrappy but represents the needs of our community. We’ve borrowed inspiration from participatory research and hired staff with digital skills, but Oakland expertise. Moreover, we’ve studied practices from the Creative Reaction Lab’s approach to equity centered design to tackle our work better. The results have been more precise information, accessible websites, and more navigable services online.

Ultimately, user experience design grounded in community insights and followed by the rapid implementation can be a recipe for success. Not only can we shift power dynamics in the development of technology, but governments can maximize the expertise of their constituents by incorporating them more deliberately into the design process as valued thought partners instead of passive participants.

Mai-Ling Garcia is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She strives to make the government simple and easy to use. She developed and executes digital strategy and service delivery for the City of Oakland as the City’s Digital Engagement Officer. She works to bridge the gap between rapidly evolving technologies and their use to benefit the Oakland community. She founded the City’s first Digital Services team focused on improving the public experience of government for Oaklanders, including Oaklandca.gov. You can read her posts here.

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