Episodes

Aynne Valencia on Work Cycles

"Whether you're working in private sector or working within the public sector, or academia, there's always that trade-off of the good for the perfect."

My guest today is Aynne Valencia. Aynne is my colleague at the California College of the Arts, where she is the former Chair of the undergraduate interaction design program. In addition to teaching at CCA, she is also the Director of Design at San Francisco Digital Services, which designs digital experiences for the citizens of San Francisco and the city employees that serve them. In this conversation, we discuss the differences and similarities between the private, civic, and education sectors and the cadences of these domains.

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Show notes

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Jorge: Aynne, welcome to the show.

Aynne: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

Jorge: Well, I’m glad to have you here. So, for folks who might not know you, how do you describe yourself, introduce yourself, tell us about what you do?

Aynne: Sure. I have had a career that spans over 18 years in design and I like to think of myself as a designer that goes where the biggest need is. So, my career really started off doing product design and experience design back in the early days of the web, and then evolved to doing product strategy work for Microsoft, where I worked for several years in their hardware incubation teams.

So, taking things that came from R&D and really turning them into products, mostly products that had a software component. And then from there, really switched over to working for agencies, where I worked at AKQA, RGA, Fjord, and also did a stint at a company called Moto that was acquired by Cisco.

And then the really weird thing happened. I had been attending and going to design critiques, and I went to one at General Assembly and I was challenged by one of the women that works there to come and teach. And you know, I had taught classes at San Francisco State at night, but I had never really thought of a career in academia as something I might do.

But I took the opportunity to teach and help co-create the user experience design immersive at General Assembly, and then really caught the education bug and the opportunity presented itself to become the Associate Chair of the Interaction Design program at California College of the Arts. And I jumped on it because I really felt like a lot of young designers really needed to have more professional-level skills. And that rigor and that expectation that we have in industry, was something I really wanted to instill in young folks while they’re still in the academic environment and have the support that they need to develop their skills.

And also, through that, I really felt like this notion of instilling the responsibility and ethics to designers was really important. So, I had an opportunity to do that for five years and my position evolved into Chair of the Undergraduate Interaction Design program. And then this really amazing opportunity came through, came to my attention, which was to be the Design Director for the city and county of San Francisco in San Francisco Digital Services.

And you know, I’ve been a long-time fan of gov.uk and a fan of what was happening with digital services at the federal level, and I was so intrigued and excited by this possibility that I really couldn’t turn it down. So, I get accepted that position several months ago, and I am now the Design Director of the largest team within San Francisco Digital Services, and we have a really huge job ahead of us, which is digitizing all of those services, for the San Francisco government. So, it’s been a really exciting time and it feels like a lot of work ahead of us but I’m really up for the challenge and very excited about it.

Jorge: You and I met at CCA and you were the Chair for the Undergraduate Interaction Design program and I teach in the graduate program, so we’ve shared that environment, and I knew a little bit about your background, through… I was a guest lecturer in one of your classes and I remember you talking a little bit about some of that work. You have this trajectory where you’ve done work in the private space, you’ve had leadership positions in the private space, then in academia, and now you’re moving to the civic space, and that strikes me as a very interesting trajectory, and I’m wondering if you are, at this point, able to spot any patterns that maybe apply to the three of them? Or perhaps the opposite, things that are very different about them?

Aynne: Yeah. Yeah. One of the things I did a lot, particularly when I worked in consulting, was working with really large companies, and I’d say that the thing that I’ve done in the past that was most analogous to what I’m doing now was working on digital strategy for McDonald’s. Now, that was a project that was re-imagining the digital platform delivery of McDonald’s and starting to imagine what digital touchpoints they might have in the future. So, a lot of that work was instrumental in what they’re able to deliver now. And that work started 10 years ago.

And I think the pattern I see a lot is that as a designer that works on the scale of the things that I’ve worked having a view for the long-term game is really important because none of these things happen overnight. And if you’re expecting them to happen overnight, you’ll be very disappointed.

And I think that having this experience of having worked in these large organizations, which are federated, which means that there’s organizations within organizations that don’t necessarily have to… that there’s no mandate that change be made. So a lot of the work is more about getting people to want to come on board to whatever it is that you’re working on, developing that thing, the complexity of what you’re working on, helping to manage and shepherd the organizational change that needs to happen to be able to effectively deliver on a new strategy, while creating those systems and managing expectations in the feasibility, which is really tracking what the roadmap is going to be.

So, for me, that is the pattern, is that change takes time and that these are moving very large ships. So, I found that when I, for the example I gave around working with these large organizations, when I moved into academia, one of the things I really wanted to do is do a curriculum change. And that started to be dreamt up five years ago, and that change is actually not going to be implemented until this year. And that’s just the beginning of some of that curriculum change. But that’s the scale that, oftentimes when you’re making a huge change like that, that is the timescale that we’re talking about.

And so, I think that working in hardware also was really good experience for that because we would be designing things that we knew were not going to go to market until three to five years. So being mindful of that, and patient to know that these things are not going to happen right away, and also really employing a lot of tools of foresight to try to imagine what that future’s going to look like, so that those two things of what you’re making for the future and where you’re placing bets that we’re going to be in the future, coalesce at the right time.

Jorge: Do you have examples of such tools for foresight? That sounds really intriguing to me.

Aynne: You know, from my perspective, you know, I spent a lot of my time looking at demographic trends. One of the other things that I really spend a lot of time paying attention to is economic trends. To me, I think that everything you need to see and everything you need to know is actually found in the financial pages more than the design news.

So, I’ve been really paying attention to what’s happening in the global markets, paying attention to demographic trends, looking at what kinds of industries are moving and why, and paying attention to where growth markets are. I think part of the curriculum change was really informed by trying to meet shifting demographic trends and what student population we’re anticipating is going to be entering college age, and then trying to think about who the target market we want to attract is. And likewise, with any business, trying to think about who are the people that you want to attract to your product and meeting them where they are — and meeting where they’re going to be — is really important. So as far as tools, it’s a lot of market research, a lot of paying attention to trends, demographics and looking at economic trends.

Jorge: Hearing you describe this long cycle decision-making processes, I’m thinking about how at odds that sounds with a lot of what happens in many private industry environments, where everything is so fast, especially when it comes to digital stuff. I’m wondering how you measure the effectiveness of programs that have such long-term windows, because in some cases, leadership may have moved on, for example, and priorities may have shifted in the in-between, right?

Aynne: Yes, exactly. And I think that the thing that really makes a difference is being able to leave artifacts behind that communicate that, that are so irresistible that they can’t be forgotten. And whether that’s having a prototype that is something that gets socialized, that is something that people really think nailed it, and that continues on. In some of the cases of projects that I’ve worked on in the past, we’ve even delivered books, or had a digital version of a style guide or a wiki that showed a visualization of what it is that we were talking about and timeline with the roadmap.

Another deliverable that I think is extremely effective is video. Video is great because it’s portable, it’s memorable, it lives on, you can put these vision videos up and they in many ways get a life of their own. But there’s also the danger of putting these things out — as with anything — is that, there’s also the potential for ideas that are not fully thought through to gain a life of their own and become reality. So, I always say to my students, and this is something that I say to designers that work for me is, be careful of what you put out there, because the design fictions you create become realities for other people. So, it’s really important to think about whether or not your idea that you have deserves to exist.

Jorge: When you’re saying these vision videos, I first had the impression that you were talking about internal artifacts. But I’m also getting the sense that these could be shared externally. Is that right?

Aynne: Yes, exactly. I know at Microsoft, particularly hardware, that was a very common tool of communications. So, the vision of the future of the office, the future of the home. Putting those things out there is a good way to first off, start to socialize the idea in public, without revealing too much that’s proprietary and gauge how people are feeling about it. But it also is many ways informing and getting people ready for ideas that they may not be ready for yet, but once they start to see them, they start to accept them as something that’s a possibility, even though they’re very, very, very far from becoming a reality or even technically feasible.

Jorge: The one that comes to mind, I think it was about 10 years ago that that video came out for the Microsoft Courier concept, which was this two-screened tablet device. Right? And funny enough, it looks like that’s coming to fruition this year. I think they announced at their annual conference that they’re actually making something that looks in spirit very much like that vision from 10 years ago.

Aynne: Yes, exactly. Actually, I had the opportunity to work on that project when it was at Pioneer Studios and I was at AKQA. And yes, that product was fully thought through, as well as many, many other products that haven’t seen the light of day yet.

These things are created way in advance of them even being possible. But they are used to inform the OEM partners, to inform the chip makers, to inform, the folks that are making a lot of the hardware behind the scenes, what kind of capabilities and functions it is that design would like to have. Things that are actually what we would want to have inside of a product, and that helps to inform what their roadmaps are going to be and what their priorities are going to be.

Jorge: Have you found any variance in this kind of longer-term vision for digital products and services in the private space, academia, and now the civic space?

Aynne: Well, I think where we get into trouble is when there’s a mismatch. So, for example, when there’s an expectation that we need to move very quickly on something, and what we really need to have to solve that problem doesn’t exist yet, then we’re rushing to put something together and then there may be places where we haven’t had a chance to think it through thoroughly, or we’re putting in a fix that is insufficient, and then we incur technical debt later on. But that’s always the tradeoff that needs to be made, whether you’re working in private sector or working within the public sector, or academia, there’s always that trade off of the good for the perfect. You know, sometimes the right tool for the job is simply not available at that time.

 Jorge: What I had in mind with the question was that it seems to me, at least on the surface, that these three domains have different natural cadences. My experience with the business world is that quarterly results are very important, and folks are usually measured by their performance every quarter.

And then in academia, we have the… Well, we have a few of them. There’s the semester, right? Like, so I’m currently teaching in the spring semester and that’s like a unit. But the folks that I’m teaching are, they’re are members of a class and there is a year, year and a half, cycle for those folks, which kind of establishes the cadence for the program.

And then in the civic space, my expectation would be that things like electoral cycles would play an important role in establishing the cadence of projects. Is that a thing?

Aynne: Not exactly. Not as much as I would have thought, and had the same thought going into it as well. I think what really is driving a lot of these things are, there’s two things. One is legislation. So, if there’s something that’s mandated by law, then suddenly that becomes high priority and it has to get done, even if it’s technically extraordinarily hard to do, it has to be done by a certain date.

And then other things, which is quite a luxury to me, don’t have any time boxing at all. You know, there’s no inherent need for getting certain things up, or digitized. So where we have a lot of luxury about the timeframe, and in fact, a lot of what I’m doing is, trying to identify these things that do have these really long-term cycles and starting to create a process and a cadence for being able to manage those things so that they’re not going on forever without any discernible end.

And likewise, being able to manage the things that get dropped into the team that need to happen right away. So, finding the balance of how to handle those two very, very different, very contradictory types of workflows and priorities that are coming through. And yes, the annual budget cycles really do come into play, in that you need to get certain things done prior to the next budget cycle so that you could prove the efficacy of whatever it is that you’ve worked on so that that continues to get funded. So that’s very similar to the way that the cycles of academia work.

Jorge: And I would expect that there would be similar governance mechanisms for that sort of thing, no?

Aynne: Yes. You know, you need to be able to prove what it is that you intended to… whatever goals that you set forth. So, it’s really important to have a really good picture of understanding what’s on the roadmap, and what’s coming up, and what resources that is going to take.

One of the biggest pain points, I think, in nonprofit and government is really around procurement. So, whether that’s doing asks for hiring and staffing or procuring software or getting supplies even, those are the kinds of things you have to really start to plan ahead for often a year or more in advance. So, it makes it a little challenging to be able to respond quickly to changes.

Jorge: Are there upsides to that as well?

Aynne: Well, yes, because you’re not as married to reacting to things. And, you know, like I said, it’s around having the luxury of thinking things through. Which is something that you often don’t get in private sector where sometimes it’ll be a situation where somebody will have a feature, a pet feature, and then suddenly that becomes the priority.

Whether it’s, it’s a priority for the customer, or for the team, or not. So, I’d say that’s a really big difference, is that we have to really justify the changes that we’re making, really think them through and have a really solid plan, well in advance before changes get made. So, it’s a good thing and a bad thing. I think that it makes it very hard to respond to things quickly, but, the good part is that you have a chance to really think things through before they go into the world.

Jorge: One of my mantras that I’ve been repeating recently is kind of an antidote to this phrase, “move fast and break things.” And it’s “move more slowly and deliberately.”

Aynne: Yeah.

Jorge: And it sounds like these cycles that are imposed by the infrastructure, require moving more slowly and deliberately, which is why I was asking you if there was an upside, because it struck me as an environment where you would have the opportunity to think things through a little bit more.

Aynne: Exactly. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, is that I think we’ve seen the consequences of moving fast and breaking things. You know, I think we’ve seen that … we’re dealing with the consequences of a lot of social media, for example, really influencing things that I’m sure and certain that the people who designed them, the people that created them never intended to have happen.

At least I hope they didn’t intend to have these things happen. And I often wonder if there had been a point where they were able to really stop and consider all of the ways that something could go wrong, to really be in a situation where you really have to do a proper risk assessment. I’m wondering if those products would have been very, very different because of it. And I think a lot about design as being something that definitely changes the world for better or for worse. And right now, it’s been worse as of late. And I think that it’s really incumbent upon all of us as designers to step up and take responsibility for those things. So I’m really glad that I’m in a place right now where I get a chance to practice one of the tenets of my beliefs, which is to have a good livelihood, where the things that I’m doing I like to think are directly related to making somebody’s life better.

And sometimes I think as designers, we are such empathetic people, that we will often even create ways for doing things that are not necessarily… That we know on some point, intellectually, are not really great for humanity. But we still have to be able to deliver those things. And so, I think that in many ways being involved in things like education, things like government, allow one to really not have to think twice about that because inherent in the work that’s being done is, is a common good for humanity.

Jorge: That strikes me as a great place to wrap the conversation, thank you for that. So, for folks who might want to follow up with you, where can they reach you?

Aynne: My website, which is http://www.avalen.com. And I’m also on Twitter, @aynne.

Jorge: Fantastic. I’m going to link to both of those from the show notes. Thank you so much Aynne for being on the show, this was great.

Aynne: Thank you. It’s great talking to you.