Fellow, Code for America
When did you first become interested in design?
I’ve always had a creative streak. When I was growing up I was always drawing and building things. I was really into LEGO and drawing maps of fake cities, and I always thought I would go to college for architecture… so I did. My dad, an engineer, wanted me to major in computer science. I didn’t do that, but I was also growing up at the time the Internet and web design was becoming popular, so I dabbled in it.
How did you get into .gov design?
My entry point into designing for government was when I became a fellow at Code for America this past year. I’d been working in architecture and urban design for over six years and was becoming frustrated at the lack of innovation and leadership in my own industry, which is sometimes slow-moving and bureaucratic if only because of how much it interfaces with government and local politics. I saw firsthand the innovation happening in the tech sector and wanted to learn a few things to help breathe new life into the building and construction sector. My background in civic issues, and front-end web development skills that I’d picked up on the side, was a good fit for the fellowship. While at Code for America, I worked with the City of Las Vegas and also co-created a web-based street section creator called Streetmix, a tool that was originally designed for public engagement but we’re seeing a lot of professional use in planning and transportation.
What lessons learned can you share with other .gov designers?
I’ve learned that it’s sometimes it’s really easy and appealing to look at a complicated problem space and attempt to generalize it too much, or to try to boil it down to a single elegant engineering solution. The thing is, every community is different, and every community is going to have individuals in it with different and sometimes conflicting needs. Sometimes the solution has to be multi-pronged, or you have to recognize that the solution you implement can only target some of the community. It’s really rare to be able to develop a technological panacea (or the so-called “killer app”) when it comes to a diverse population with different needs.
I also think it’s important not to believe that technology is the only solution. I find that one of the biggest challenges we face, as people working with technology, is to assume that an interaction with real people can be simply replaced by machines. It may not scale as well, but there’s often still no substitute for talking to someone in person, whether it’s over the phone or behind a desk or door to door. Trying to balance what parts of a process need to have a human element versus what should be improved or augmented with technology is a delicate design problem.
What’s been the most rewarding with respect to implementing new technologies?
I think the most rewarding way to use new technologies is when you realize what those new technologies can actually do to improve an experience a citizen has with their government. For a really long time, it was just really easy to put a digital form up on the Internet and say “Okay, that’s done, we’ve successfully used technology.” That’s still the way many government officials treat the Internet, I think, as a repository for PDF files. But designers nowadays bring more value when they don’t just implement a digital version of a paper form. For instance, if data sources can be shared and accessed via APIs, then how much of a form is really necessary for the user to fill out? You could, for instance, enter an address and the software goes and looks up your parcel number. You don’t even need that blank on your form. It sounds obvious, but so many government interfaces don’t make that connection for their users.
The great thing about new technology now is that it’s so easy and so cheap to modify the software and redeploy it. The procurement and project management process within government hasn’t quite caught up to it yet, but being able to test an application with actual users, and either validate your assumptions or iterate on what’s not working, is something that’s really low overhead to achieve now. It’s extremely rewarding when the technology actually enables users to interact better with the government.
Online and off, who are your design inspirations?
The Government Digital Service did some amazing work across the pond with Gov.UK. Their list of design principles is the foundation of what I believe design for government should be. Recently, GDS executive director Mike Bracken was interviewed on NPR talking about how that could be brought to the U.S.. Similarly, Startups, This is How Design Works is geared toward developer founders but I think could be applied to governments as well.
In the world of architecture I really respect Norman Foster, who does some amazing and innovative things with steel that’s actually more structurally sound while using less material than traditional systems. It’s reflects an ethos of actually being able to influence an entire industry with more sustainable, repeatable practices. I feel a lot of other big-name-brand architects are just designing for vanity by comparison, and that’s really unfortunate.
What’s in your designer/developer toolbox?
I’m pretty low-fi. Sketches are fast, and once I have an idea down on paper I almost immediately translate it to HTML. I used to do mockups in Photoshop, but I’ve found that I can create and tweak the presentation in CSS just as fast I can set it up in Photoshop, and then once I’ve got it just right, then I’ve already got a working pixel-perfect prototype. It’s saved me a ton of time to cut out that middleman.
I usually start with HTML5 Boilerplate. Everything else is dependent on the needs of the project. I’ll use Bootstrap if I think I need it, but I don’t immediately assume I need it. My last project was actually mostly done with the Angular framework on a Node.js server. Services I depend on include Heroku, GitHub, BrowserStack, and for mapping, I usually use MapBox, but I’m also discovering that the Google Maps API is really easy to use and works better for a government data workflow, although it’s a bit less customizable.
I write code in Sublime Text 2 and depend on LiveReload for instant LESS or SASS preprocessing, but I’m usually pretty shy about using tools that create a dependency for other developers. Most of the stuff I’m working on right now is intended to hand off to other developers, sometimes within government. You want to keep the learning curve low so that there’s a greater chance the application gets maintained for the future.
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