What it’s like to be a Design, Technology, and Innovation Fellow with the City of Austin

Laura Trujillo, Content Strategist, and Sarah Rudder, Front End Developer, working with me to synthesize insights from digital service interviews this summer.

Designers and technologists reach out often to ask me what it’s like being a Design, Technology, and Innovation Fellow for the City of Austin. If you, too, are curious–this post is for you.


I just celebrated my one year anniversary as a fellow. I’m one of a handful who started the first month of the first cohort in August, 2016. I’ve worked on three projects:

Each project brought together unique constraints, team dynamics, and insights that have pushed me as a researcher and designer and helped our program evolve from an idea to an adaptive, open group of collaborators who can tackle complex city problems. I’ve been able to build a foundation for working across disciplines, for sharing insights with stakeholders that have diverse responsibilities and goals, and translating research into implementable design. Here are some top-level reflections of my experience.

Everyone has the same goal: serving residents well.

Individuals have various goals (this is the same everywhere) but there’s a feeling across the city that we’re all working towards the same thing–we want to serve people better. There’s also a universal love for Austin. The city has changed and continues to change quickly. All the more reason designers, researchers, and developers who are interested in civic engagement should join the city and guide that change towards a more collaborative, people-oriented place.

You’re researching and designing with city teams and the people you’re serving.

Each time the innovation office is approached with a problem, we take the initial step of research or “discovery” to determine if we have the right problem framed. Discovery includes going to the people we’re designing for and learning about their goals, needs, environment, challenges. Each project team is a combination of permanent city employees responsible for planning and administering programs as well as fellows. City employees conduct research with us, providing knowledge and perspective into the challenges of their space: homelessness, recycling, emergency services. Employees, fellows, and residents shape discovery, and as a result–shape city services.

Case Study 1 | Testing Recycling Prototypes

Ron Neumond, a City of Austin Waste Diversion Planner, is taking notes while Roxy, an Austin resident, tests the Household Sorting Guide.

Ron Neumond, a City of Austin Waste Diversion Planner, teamed up with us for seven months to conduct in-home interviews with residents, design and test prototypes, and plan implementation of the products or services that made the cut. Ron brought years of research experience to our team and provided insight into Austin’s history with recycling and waste diversion. He had relationships across city departments and community organizations that helped us share learnings and gather feedback throughout the project. Most of all, he is committed long term to Austin recycling and continues to develop and evaluate the services we tested.

The work you’re doing gets tested, implemented, and evaluated.

As a fellow, you work directly with people across the city to research, prototype, test, and implement products and services. The goal is not just creating something impressive or a service that addresses the identified problem–rather it’s to create sustainable products and services that fit within the city ecosystem, have the people and resources required to support it, and can be evaluated over time.

Case Study 2 | Managing Citywide Content

Jason is a Marketing Representative for the city. He’s responsible for managing his department’s content on AustinTexas.gov as well as their social media accounts. Content Management refers to the tools and processes people use to author and publish content in a variety of mediums. We’re focused on digital content. We asked Jason to test a paper prototype of a new content management system, hoping the prototype would prompt authors to:

The content management prototype helped Jason and other usability testers to inch closer to those goals, but certain asks proved more challenging than others like lowering the reading level of a page. Lower reading level grants people with lower literacy the same access to the information as people with higher literacy. After several refinements and test rounds that yielded the same observations, we took steps to develop a Digital Services Style Guide and to prototype content workshops that we’re preparing to test. The content management system couldn’t address every challenge on its own. Guided by usability test learnings, we fleshed out the guides and coaching needed to prepare authors and publishers to use the content management system and deliver great content for residents.

Your peers are your greatest teachers.

My experience as a fellow came after attending the Austin Center for Design, an alternative program for social entrepreneurship and interaction design. I’d worked for service and product start-ups as well as in retail, management, and the service industry. I was looking for a way to better serve people and the environment. The Austin Center for Design helped me make that switch. I learned better communication skills and how and why we do research. Working alongside developers, senior visual designers, community engagement experts, and communication designers at the city–I’m building upon that knowledge and widening the application of the tools and methods I use. I’ve learned how to estimate development with our engineers, how to gently surface hidden organizational challenges from a communication designer, and how to reconstruct presentation narratives for your audience from our Chief Innovation Officer. The fellows program is a place for honing your craft, sharing it with others, and helping a city become more adept at serving its residents.

If you’re interested in working as a fellow, the program is opening hiring for the 2018 cohort on October 2nd. There’s also open positions on our jobs page that reflect more immediate needs. I recommend,

  • preparing your portfolio (designer/researcher) or github sites (designer/developer)
  • applying to the position you think best aligns with your experience
  • reaching out to a fellow or two to ask a few specific questions about their experience over email or linkedin

Feel free to comment with other questions about the program.