Cyd Harrell on Design for the Long-term

“I tend to think of an institution as something that acts not just at scale, but over time.”

My guest today is Cyd Harrell. Cyd is a product, service design, and user research leader focused on the civic and government space. In this conversation, we discuss the differences between designing for civic and commercial projects and what it takes to design respectful systems that stand the test of time.

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Show notes

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Jorge: So Cyd, welcome to the show.

Cyd: Thank you so much Jorge, I’m excited to be here.

Jorge: For folks who may not be familiar with you and your work, can you please introduce yourself?

Cyd: Yes. Hi, I’m Cyd Harrell and I am a user researcher by core discipline, but I also do a bit of product management and service design. And for the last seven years or so, I’ve been working pretty exclusively in the civic and government space. I left a job when my little research firm that I was working for, Bolt Peters, was bought by Facebook, and I wanted to do something a little deeper. I ended up at that point starting out with the Center for Civic Design, working on one of their field guides to ensuring voter intent on a six-month research project about county-level election websites. And everything kind of went from there.

I spent time at Code for America as their Head of UX, and then Head of Product, and then I went to 18 F for a turn helping the Federal Government digitize or make better digital services for citizens and residents. And after a two-year term there, I came over to the California Courts. I can’t talk too much about work that’s in flight at the Courts, but I can talk in general terms about it and I think I would have a hard time going back to the private sector at this point. So that’s kind of where I am.

Jorge: What is it about working in the civic space that you like so much?

Cyd: I think it’s that — and this will probably be counterintuitive for people — I absolutely love the public servants that I meet and the commitments that they have to doing work that benefits a large swath of the public. There’s a sort of myth that government is inefficient because people don’t care and it’s something the opposite of that. There are a tremendous number of people who care and who don’t necessarily have access to the tools or the practices or the communities to help them do the best design, the best technology implementations. It’s really hard work, but when it does work, the impact can be really huge.

Jorge: The civic space is something that we’re all participants in. It’s not like in in the commercial domain where we are kind of willing participants in some ways; we literally buy into the space. But when it comes to the civic space, that’s part of everyone’s infrastructure, no?

Cyd: That’s right. And that’s one of the things that’s interesting about it in some way, because this is a democracy, we’re all owners. And so, you would think that when you walk into a government agency to get service, you might have a feeling that you’re interacting on that level. It’s not always the case, and that can be done a lot better.

One of the other things is that as you say, we’re not necessarily willing participants. I can’t go up the road and get my business permit from a different city than the one I live in if I don’t happen to like the service or the rules. So, it starts to be kind of a moral obligation from my perspective to provide a respectful user experience to people who interact with government.

And that’s something that tends to really resonate with public servants when they’re able to see the impact that their work has on people. That’s probably my favorite kind of moment when I can bring someone who maybe hasn’t had a good feedback loop with users to realize that the hard work that they do — maybe they’re doing something like improving a form or making a public signage easier to read or something that seems kind of mundane — and they may not have access to see what improvements that provides to the public.

But if I can bring them to see it, they can almost reconnect with a service mission and get really excited once again about the work that they committed to do very often as a long-term career.

Jorge: You gave a presentation earlier this year at the CanUX conference that… I have not seen the presentation; I was not at CanUX, but my understanding is that you delved into specifically user experience design for institutions.

Cyd: Yes. That’s a bit of a hobby horse of mine.

Jorge: I was wondering if you could relate to the listeners of this show a little bit of what you were getting into with that presentation.

Cyd: Absolutely. So, you know, it comes out of my work in government and talking with colleagues who work in institutions like healthcare or like education. And I tend to think of an institution as something that acts, not just at scale, but over time. So government, the programs that we put in place now might affect people over decades, maybe even over centuries.

And it requires a different kind of thinking than optimizing something that we know is going to be superseded by another technology in a few months or a few years. And one of the really interesting things about our time right now is that we interact with these long timescales in institutions via the short timescale technologies that we have in our hands, like smart phones or apps or the web.

And a lot of the conversation around user experience right now is kind of around optimization. I’m making more exciting, more delightful, digital products that convert or that sell or that sell ads. And working in small cycles in an agile way that suits the engineering methods of the time that suits the kind of metrics, methods of the time and that I think actually makes it difficult for UX practitioners to really think about the deeper people-oriented values that we have to get into.

So this is why I asked to borrow that diagram from your book for the presentation about the pace layers. We talk a lot about things at the top level, and that’s very easy to talk about. And then thinking about, how did I want to say to the folks at CanUX that we have the ability to work with values, like for example, respect?

Respect is for me a really important value in almost every design, but also in particular for government, where whatever the government agency is, it’s interacting with someone who is perhaps an owner because they’re part of a democracy, or who certainly is someone whose dignity is protected in foundational documents like the Constitution and so forth.

If we start to imagine, the easy one for most people is, what if you went to the DMV and it was a respectful experience? What would it be like if I’m getting a business permit or even something simple like signing your kid up for a class at the library? What if that respected your time and your dignity and your abilities in full?

You can start to get even more speculative. What if we came up with a way to make arrests as respectful as possible of the person experiencing them? Why don’t we do that? What would that imply about every feature of a design?

Let’s do something a little bit less critical, say applying for public benefits. What if we took the processes and made sure that they were respectful of the time and the needs and the abilities of our fellow citizens who are experiencing difficulty and need our collective help? These things don’t fit very title and to an AB test, and they don’t necessarily fit very tightly into a sprint.

But to my mind, this is the kind of work that a lot of UX practitioners went into the field to do. And pieces of my talk were around encouraging people to think this way and sharing some of my experiences with some really new design values to me and my work at the Courts. For example, neutrality or impartiality is a critical court value.

The challenge is almost everything we think about web design right now. So the court can’t really be concerned with whether you actually file your divorce case. It’s of no particular benefit to it whether you do or not. But at the same time, it wants to make it easy for you to do what you need to do without an opinion. And that’s so very contrary to the commercial way that so much practice has thought about. You know, how do we get people to align their needs with our business needs so that we can all do well together?

Jorge: If I might read back to you what I’m seeing as a primary distinction between the two fields is, so much of what we do in the commercial realm is about persuasion. You know, trying to persuade someone to use a certain product or service or try to persuade them to use it in a particular way. And it strikes me that in the civic space, it has to be more neutral. It has to be less about persuasion and more about things like usability and findability.

Cyd: Yes. And you know, the government has legitimate interests, I think, particularly on the Executive branch side, they might want to use some of those techniques. California for example, has a policy that everyone who is eligible for food aid should be enrolled, if at all possible, if they are willing. So, they might use some of those techniques to try and persuade people to enroll in a program. It’s a little bit different with the Court. It’s the only thing I’ve ever worked with where it has neutrality, impartiality as a core value, and we’re making a website.

 Jorge: For the purpose of folks listening who might not have seen it, it might be worthwhile to just describe this diagram that you’re alluding to. So, it’s a diagram that appears in my book Living in Information, and it’s really a riff off Stewart Brand’s famous shearing layers or pace layer diagram that describes how things change over time.

And one of the points that he makes with this thing is that there are many things in the world that we perceive as changing somewhat homogeneously, or all at the same time. But in reality, they’re composed of things that change at different rates. So, there are parts of it that change faster than others. Buildings is an example, and the original version of this thing came out in his book, How Buildings Learn, which is about how buildings change over time.

Anyways, the version that appears in my book has to do with the design of information environments. And the layers there are, from slowest to fastest changing, the purpose of the system, the strategy of the organization that is implementing that, the governance set-up of the organization to implement that strategy, a set of structures that make it possible for the governance to be implemented, and then finally, what I call in the book “form,” which is the stuff that we experience, things like apps and websites and that sort of thing.

But, just from looking at the material that came out of CanUX, I know that you’ve made some interesting changes, additions to this. Right?

Cyd: So, I added on a little bit to make a point that I wanted to, starting with… Jorge’s diagram looks a little bit like a WIFI symbol, but with arrows as the lines are coming towards the right. And I identified as sort of the current realm of design, the structure and form layers where we’re thinking about the actual things that get delivered to users or experienced by users, and also the structures, the processes by which we make them, the immediate systems that we use in the making of them.

So that would include anything like our tools, our sprint structures, our team organizations. But that deeper down, governance can kind of go either way, but strategy and purpose are really layers that make an institution what it is. And when and if designers are able to work with strategy and purpose and kind of the deeper parts of governance, we can do things that really have a huge effect on experience over time.

And much of the UX conversation right now is kind of on the form and structure and governance of doing apps and software at scale. But the questions that we most want to ask, if we are able to get in there and shift some of the purpose and strategy conversations using the tools of listening and synthesis that are the core part of our practice, we can have our work have effect over a lot longer timescale. And that’s valuable for institutional work, but I think it’s also valuable as we think about the mass of software that’s really becoming a major part of a lot of people’s lives in the last couple of decades.

Jorge: I’m reminded of something that I read, I think from Tim O’Reilly, where he made the point that oftentimes we confuse politics with governance, right? And those are very different realms. And there is some overlap between them in that the way that our societies are set up, the folks who manage the governance processes come to those positions often through political means, but they’re very different things, and they have different intents, no?

Cyd: They are, yes. Politics is in some ways, shorter term. It has cycles and you might meet many civil servants who either have been in place or intend to be in place for 20 years, 30 years, 40 years. It was really, really interesting to me when I went to the Federal Government, I started in May of 2016 and I figured I was going to get a chance to see a presidential transition, which would be just interesting from a process perspective and I got a lot more than I bargained for on that front. It was a very different transition than expected.

Of course, we’re talking about the election of President Trump, if anyone is hearing this a long time forward. And watching how the career public servants dealt with the fact that there was this inexperienced kind of anti-government, potentially enormously disruptive set of people coming to power, and the language that they used to de-politicize it in talking about their work. So, they would say things like, “Well, the previous administration really favored assistance to labor organizations. The current administration has a different perspective.” Or, “The previous administration favored the Paris climate treaty, and the current administration has made some different decisions.” And you could tell from the way that people would say it that they had feelings about it. But the way that they used that language put them in a position to do what they could to smooth out and keep a continuity going across this very disruptive political interlude.

Jorge: So how does one go about doing design work in information environments for longer-term purposes?

Cyd: So, it ends up involving a ton of social work. Oh, let me think how I want to put this. It requires us to think, and not just qualitatively, but almost speculatively. In the presentation, I talk about the idea of “what if,” and I think I used the term when I was explaining around respect, what if we could make the experience of arrest as respectful as possible?

Asking that kind of question starts to allow you — and you have to do a bunch of organizational work to get permission to put it into place — but it starts to allow you to look at design values that are below the surface. And I think in your diagram, talking about is sort of the strategy and governance level. So, at a governance level, if we really wanted to consider respectful arrest, what kinds of rules, what kinds of regulations, what kinds of accountability would need to be in place? How would we know if we wanted to talk about strategy, it would need to affect entire organism?

By the way, nobody’s doing this particular thing. So, this is just a thought experiment, but it would need to affect all levels of strategic thinking in an organization. If we wanted to change something that is that core. Because right now, the way that it’s done, not that that’s not a core value in those kinds of interactions with the public.

You know, there are certain exceptions where we are arresting high status people at a protest. We try to be gentle about it because we know they’re going to get out. I don’t have a lot of expertise in policing, so I don’t want to, you know, go too deep into specifics in my thought experiment. But just asking the question, what if it was like this? Why don’t we do that?

In the courts, there’s some really interesting stuff around accuracy, which is obviously another incredibly important value and also tends to be thought of by experienced legal experts as, “making sure that no legal experts can poke holes in what I’ve said,” which is a very valid definition for it, given the way that things work in the courts and given the training that people get. But it’s a difficult one for people who are on their own in the legal system or who are not experts because they may get too much information or the wrong kind of information. They may not come away with an accurate impression of what they need to know.

And so, one of the things I’ve been doing there is asking, “what if?” What if we defined accuracy by what a person takes away from here? And what happens in response to that question? Because I have the standing in the organization to ask it to some, some interesting people. I hear what the barriers are. And I hear also what the other values are. That might be really important.

What if we did that? Well, we might end up telling someone something that is technically wrong, which could get us in trouble in a case at some point. That’s pretty important to know that those are the risks that people are considering, which enables me to then think about designing and, you know… Not even really designing towards the end user here, but I’m designing towards people who might be writing content.

Okay, how can we think about those risks? Who can I work with to draw into this process, to design a process that takes appropriate account of those risks, but also has an end point where the things that we put out for the public are going to meet a definition of accuracy that serves the public. Whose support in the organization am I going to need to make people feel comfortable with taking those risks?

And so then I have a whole new set of hypotheses and things on my to do list to work on, but they are a little bit more concrete, a little bit more informed, and if I’m able to shift something along that particular value, it’s the kind of thing where if people make a different assumption about what accuracy means or what our clients need for accuracy is, or how we might best meet that need and also meet our obligations as a profession to the more standard definition of accuracy. Those people themselves, not just me, are doing a newer kind of thinking and that begins to get embedded in the institution, and then it’s deeper layers of design value in a way that I know can stick after I’ve left.

Whereas if I just work on designing a nicer webpage and leaving sort of surface level instructions about content or language, you know, “We use short words. We don’t use a lot of helper terms. We always define legal specialist terms.” Those things are all important, but they don’t tell you why, and they don’t help embed that deeper definition into the slower-changing, deeper layer of an organization.

Jorge: I want to reflect that back to you because I think this is a hugely important point that you’re making, and I want to make sure that I’m getting it right. There is a distinction between doing design work at the level of the artifacts that people will be interacting with — screen-level stuff, let’s call it — in the digital space. And then there’s another level at which designers can operate, which has to do with the framing of the problems, right? Or the framing of the situation they’re dealing with. In this case, part of the framing includes, “What is our definition of success here?” Like if we’re talking about accuracy, that word “accuracy” might mean different things to different people, and it might be within the remit of the folks who are designing these systems… Rather, I’ll be, I’ll be more practical. I’ll say it should be within the remit of the folks who are designing these systems to really nail down the definition of those terms, especially when it comes to the ones that are being used to measure the effectiveness of the system. Is that fair?

Cyd: Yes. I think that’s absolutely right. And you’re sort of circling around a point about design goals, I think, which is something I’ve also been thinking about recently. So, my current partners are new to setting design goals except for I want things to be better, I want things to be good for the user, I want things to be simple and modern. And I asked a on Twitter a few months ago for some examples of good sets of design goals, and nearly all of the ones I got back were around, this is how we practice. You know, we practice with respect for users. We put our users’ needs first, really important stuff. But I was surprised that I wasn’t able to find as many people saying things like this goal around a specific definition of accuracy, “this is what we are going for.” You know, respect is our top value. Excitement is our top value. A consistent sense of safety and support is our top value.

I don’t feel, and it could just be mine at work, but I don’t feel like I hear as much about those types of design goals as I did maybe 10 years ago. And in the work that I have ended up doing in the civic space, it’s ended up being one of the most important things. I actually have such respect for people who work on the screen-level stuff and the material aspects, and I think it’s really important for designers to have a strong understanding of what we’re working with, what we’re making things out of. But at the same time, if we don’t know why we’re making what we’re making and how we’ll know it’s working, as you put it, then all of that can be for naught.

Jorge: This example that you’re using about the arrest is very powerful, because when you were first enumerating your list of services, I think you said things like, get a driver’s license, apply for a library card… And then you list arrests as one of those interactions, let’s call it, with authority.

Cyd: It is absolutely an interaction with government.

Jorge: Absolutely. Right? But it’s an interaction that I think that for a lot of us, it’s kind of in a different set than something like applying for a library card, which… Well, to begin with, the context in which those interactions happen is very different, the levels of stress involved are very different, the degree of agency of the person… Gosh, I want to say, “receiving the service,” but that’s not right. I mean, even the language becomes fraught. So, I think that the very fact of just framing the conversation in terms of the values that you want to get out of the system strikes me as incredibly powerful. And then this seems like a good example.

Cyd: It’s a very provocative one. I use it sometimes in workshops with government folks, you know, as just a… Let’s just take this over somewhere where it’s going to be hard to think about, and then I ask them to think of other pairs of things that are hard to think about.

Jorge: From a service design perspective, applying for a library card is kind of an easy problem to solve as compared to something like the process of an arrest, no?

Cyd: So, you know, it’s funny about libraries though. I don’t know if you heard that a couple of weeks ago, the County of Los Angeles canceled all their library fines and they got back thousands of books. And there’ve been some interviews, and it’s not so much because people couldn’t afford the fines as because they were ashamed.

And so, the process of applying for the card is a fairly simple service design. And yet the whole experience of being a member of this institutional library and how it treats you actually has some hooks into those deeper emotions and sort of deeper senses of worth.

Jorge: Just hearing you describe this makes me think about how important it is for the people who are involved with the design of these systems to really get into the mindset of the folks who will be interacting with them.

Cyd: Yes, yes. There’s absolutely no substitute for close observation, receptiveness, real research, and context. And this applies to private sector things as well. And in some ways, you know, the way that the public sector can lead is it’s fairly obvious that there’s a public sector monopoly on certain things. There’s a moral obligation to treat people in accordance with their rights and duties. But in the private sector, you can also think about these values.

So, one of the things that I said in my talk is, how do we think about software as an institution? It’s starting to be something that really affects people at scale and over time. And how can we think about how our work affects those deeper values in the institution of software, if indeed we want to name it that at this point. You can go back to Isaac Asimov’s robotics laws and so forth. But as we’re starting to have even more explicit and integrated interactions with software just as part of our daily lives, what do we as designers want to put forward as critical and underlying values for the way that software interacts with people? What about for the way that software gets developed? How does that affect it?

Jorge: I wholeheartedly agree, Cyd. And that strikes me as a great place to wrap the conversation. Where can folks follow up with you?

Cyd: Twitter is probably best. I’m just my name, Cyd Harrell on there.

Jorge: Well, great. Thank you so much for being on the show, Cyd.

Cyd: My pleasure. It was really fun to talk to you again.