How working for the City of Austin made me a better designer-storyteller
A few years ago, I worked as a designer for the City of Austin. I was part of a group tasked with improving the city’s digital services, a part of which was redesigning the City website. I took for granted how difficult it is for local government to get things done before I started working for the City. The network of agencies, departments, and offices take time to navigate, but we didn’t have years to build relationships — we had weeks.
To quickly learn the skills to execute well and motivate dozens of people to trust and invest in our initiatives, my team met people working at every level of digital services: developers, customer service staff, managers, executives, the chief information officer. We listened to each person’s concerns, ideas, and experiences, and then visualized those stories in order to understand the context we were designing for. Most of the people I worked with and interviewed had been at the City for 5–10 years or more and had insight I couldn’t dream of developing on my own. Some of the most important insights we gained were around the limitations that constrained their ability to try new things.
Investing in understanding the perception of a diverse group of stakeholders gave me the context to tell better stories. Ultimately, working with City teams sharpened my ability to tell compelling, relatable, and repeatable resident stories that helped staff frame their concerns in actionable ways.
“Cities are a mile wide and an inch deep…, they provide all the services to all the people, and so it’s just such a wide range of things.”
Steve Fisher, founder and designer at The Republic of Quality (Responsive Web Design podcast)
Lead Valuable Conversations
Motivating dozens of people to trust and invest in initiatives means regularly pulling them into the process. This is a balancing act because creative teams need space and time to work through iterations with our team of experts, and you can spend loads of time addressing client concerns and defending design choices for the City in meetings that aren’t about design. It’s an important lesson I learned from a fellow designer, Tori Breitling, and which Lillian Ayla Ersoy talks about in her Medium post, Why Design Thinking is failing and what we should be doing differently. Both Tori and Ersoy stress the importance of giving you and your team the space to work through problems and iterate on solutions. Ersoy writes,
“The client and team should trust the experienced practitioners and creatives to take the insight and go further. Stakes and expectations should be raised. The team of experts should continue to collaborate with others, but only in-between flow-sessions. Brilliant execution craves deep flow and creative juices.”
I learned to channel stakeholder concerns and questions through the design process. I created a structured, open forum in presentations, meetings, and reviews with guidelines so stakeholders were providing feedback and insight in actionable ways. We accomplished this by:
- putting the work on the wall
- asking attendees to provide specific feedback
- asking important follow-up questions to determine the source of their feedback
- and documenting and following up in later reviews on previous feedback
This pushed us further, faster and allowed our team time to iterate. It built trust between the team and stakeholders, who became champions of the work because they could see it and had actively participated in shaping it. Building in structure and inclusivity can help ease the creative tension in a big system like city government.
Default to Visual Communication
When developing concepts, I often ask myself, ‘how would I show this to people rather than tell them?’ In meetings, a thoughtful visual artifact can unite everyone in the room in seconds. Using design to address problems is a new concept in government, and visual tools are a good introduction to communicating ideas and problems across different departments and stakeholders.
Technology is moving away from giant monolith systems–something cities are drawn to because it simplifies security, purchasing, and onboarding. The mix of monoliths with hundreds of individual applications had become incredibly difficult for City staff to manage. I wanted to show City leadership why evaluating and choosing new technology, as well as managing digital services like their website and applications, was challenging and where there were opportunities to make process improvements. I mapped stories from different staff members and managers on the wall, grouping similar pain points and placing them across a conceptual timeline. It helped me make sense of everything I was hearing and as I shared it with different team members, it evolved into a very clear visual of procurement challenges and opportunities.
We used the refined version in meetings with management and leadership. Each time someone would see, they’d have a visceral reaction and would say, ‘Ugh, that’s it’. That was evidence the visual diagram was meaningful to the everyday pain points they experienced. Sometimes visuals don’t mean nearly as much to you as they do to stakeholders, so it’s important to show it to people and gather feedback in order to gauge how meaningful it is to each person. The procurement visual facilitated conversation because everyone knew exactly what they were discussing. I watched groups, who were disagreeing only moments earlier–find alignment through discussing this artifact.
Visual artifacts are the bread and butter of design. They take ideas from individuals’ heads and put them into a shared space. As a designer, I learned to create a collaborative, safe vibe in that shared space that encourages people to express doubt, fear, concerns, and for all of us to move forward together. Although this is a valuable tool in government, I recommend using it in any discussion where multiple people need to come to alignment and make decisions.
From Civic Design to Design Agency
Designing for a big, complex organization like the City gave me a greater awareness of the difficulties people face in sharing ideas, getting aligned, and making progress. I learned to leverage broad, interconnected systems to spark action across different people. My role as a designer was to not only to find innovative solutions to wicked problems, but also to be a bridge between departments, workflows, strategies, and people–connecting the dots to tell a cohesive narrative that many groups of people could rally around and use to implement change.
I moved to Handsome to sharpen my skills as a designer–my ability to ideate, conceptualize, refine, and tell stories. I wanted to work with a talented crew that pushed my capabilities forward. I’ve worked with one client so far, recognizing that the required pace is at least twice as fast as it was at the City of Austin. It’s teaching me to get to version 1 of anything that I do faster, to share drafts immediately for feedback, and to lean on my colleagues.
As a designer at Handsome, the focus is on understanding people’s perception and designing a holistic service and product experience. I work with clients to familiarize them with their customers, to help them to begin making decisions based on user data rather than hunches and in addition to market trends. This enables us to design solutions truly shaped around user values, with consideration for a client’s larger organization. My experience as a designer in city government boosted my ability to evaluate large, complex systems and design successful, cohesive solutions with greater buy-in.
Working in government helped broaden my perspective in order to serve a group of people with very different needs and concerns. I got an insider look at local infrastructure and learned to leverage big, complex systems in order to create a positive impact. My experiences build upon each other and have become invaluable in informing my perspective as a designer.