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Who We Design For

Crystal Yan talks to us about the beauty of working in the public sector and what happens when our careers hit close to home. 

Words by Tony Ho Tran, Visuals by Thumy Phan

Children of first-generation immigrants know the feeling of helping their parents do everyday tasks all too well.

Translating for your dad at the grocery store. Filling out a job application for your mom. Making sure their paychecks get deposited into the right account at the bank.

These are small moments—the simple things many people might take for granted as they go about their day-to-day lives. But for immigrants, they can quite often be herculean tasks made so by language, cultural, or mental barriers.

This is something Crystal Yan knows. She leads consumer product growth for the Passbook team at Remitly, a company that helps immigrants send money to family and friends in their home country (also known as “remittance”) faster, safer, and easier.

“Ending up in Remitly makes sense because my parents are immigrants,” says Crystal. “Working to serve a customer base that could look like either my parents 30 years ago or like my parents today is really rewarding.”

Crystal draws upon her experience working in the public sector, including helping asylum seekers navigate the asylum application process in the United States with the U.S. Digital Service. Now, at Remitly, she’s helping shape Passbook, a multinational banking account that requires no Social Security number and simplifies the financial experience for immigrants.

“Just a few months ago, my mom asked me to walk with her to the bank so she could deposit her check at the ATM and I asked her why she didn’t simply take a photo of it and deposit it by phone. She said, ‘I've never done that,’” Crystal recalls. “It was so funny because I was working on this exact feature at work. I didn't even think to ask my mom about this even though she's literally who I'm designing for.”

We took some time out of Crystal’s busy schedule to sit down and chat about her experience working for United States Digital Service (USDS), what drew her to Remitly, and why critics should give the public sector a shot.

What were your priorities when you worked for USDS?

The first project I worked on there was at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Our team was working to change the way that people pay for healthcare in the US, shifting from a fee-for-service model to a value-based care model. This sounds great at the big policy level, but the big challenge was in how to actually implement it.

I did a lot of design research with patients, healthcare workers, and also with the many people who work in healthcare one may never think of–like the person who does billing and revenue cycle management.

My second year at USDS I worked at US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on the U.S. affirmative asylum program. Our team was working to reduce the backlog, to reduce the time that people were waiting before they heard back on a decision for their case.

One challenge we faced was that when we wanted to meet with asylum seekers to better understand their needs, nobody was willing to talk to us. Others were ready to give up on talking to users and admitted, “nobody wants to talk to us when we have a .gov email." And admittedly, the legal team was concerned that people would believe that providing feedback would affect the status of their asylum application. But despite these challenges, I wasn’t ready to give up, because putting in more effort to include the perspectives of communities who may be harder to reach is what practicing design ethics & inclusion day to day looks like.

That sounds like such a delicate situation. How’d you work through it?

I found a grassroots non-profit organization that trained asylum seekers on how to apply for jobs in the US. I volunteered and met people over dinners in church basements, and convinced them to give me feedback on new services that we were rolling out for asylum seekers.

Many immigrants in the US are underemployed. For example, some were engineers in their home country but they couldn't get re-credentialed when they came to the US. Because of this, they need a survival job.

This non-profit worked with asylum seekers and helped them with their resumes so that they could try to get the job that they were trained to do. They were looking for volunteers to be career coaches and do practice interviews with people. I signed up to volunteer with them, and that's how I built a relationship with some asylum seekers.

They had community dinners to help people who are all going through this difficult process connect with each other. One was a potluck in a church, and everyone brought different food from their country. I was there and people would say, "Oh that's Crystal. She helped me with my resume or she helped me prepare for my interview." And then I asked, "Hey by the way, I'm doing this thing at work. I'd love it if you could take a look at it and give feedback. You can say no, but would you be interested?" At that point they often agreed, "Oh sure. I know Crystal." I did all the disclosure for the research so people knew their feedback wouldn't affect the status of their asylum application.

When you admire and respect the people that you are fighting for, it makes the hard work worthwhile.

Crystal Yan

That’s a creative solution. I’d imagine you would face the same sort of situation at Remitly. What do you work on there?

When I joined, Remitly had one product: a remittance product for immigrants to send money to their family back home. They were also working to expand to offer additional financial services for immigrants.

There was a small team that was exploring different ideas for building new financial services for immigrants, and they were looking to hire the first product or design person on the team. I had worked on product market fit expansion a few times prior at a previous startup, and knew that incubating new products and teams to grow the business leverages many of my superpowers. And when I met the people on the team, I knew it was the right fit.

Now, I lead consumer product for that team. We built a digital banking product, Passbook, in nine months, and launched earlier this year. It's exciting to work on this problem space, and make banking better for immigrants.

What drew you to Remitly initially? Why do you like doing the work that you do now?

First, our customers. When you admire and respect the people that you are fighting for, it makes the hard work worthwhile. Our customers are immigrants who are building a new life somewhere. They're making sacrifices to support their family back home, and are truly everyday heroes. And by nature of the mission of the organization and the problem we’re trying to solve, we attract a certain type of person to the job, which means the people you get to work with on this really exciting problem are very mission-driven and ambitious about the world we want to build for our customers to thrive in.

Then, the environment. When I was at USDS, we described ourselves as a startup with the government, and in a way, it’s also what the opportunity to join Remitly was like: a smaller, early stage startup within a larger, growth stage startup. We feel the sense of ownership that comes from building the culture of the organization from the ground up. But while you’re also building the product from the ground up, it's not as chaotic as if you were truly an early-stage startup.

And finally, the culture. In many organizations, you may feel that as the product manager, designer, or researcher, you're the one who has to care about the user the most and you're trying to get everyone else on board to care about the customer. But that's not true for my current team. Everyone is a part of building our customer centric culture. Sometimes, we might have different opinions on the decision we want to make. But we're at least aligned on the why of the problem we're trying to solve, and that's a great place to be in.

My advice to readers is to take ownership of your career growth, create multiple paths for yourself, so that you have more than the one default path your current organization lays out in front of you.

Crystal Yan

Based on your experiences, how does research done within the public sector lead to policy change or not?

I'm still an eternal student of this but I used to believe policy was only “big P policy”. The "I'm just a bill" policy: a legislative body proposes and passes legislation, then a regulatory body proposes and codifies a regulation.

After working in the public sector, I learned the next level of implementing policy. It’s the one in which we need to answer the key question, "How does something get put into practice?" I spent most of my time at USDS learning about that third part: often, there are areas where we had constraints from policy requirements that restricted how we could deliver a great service to users.

We had to work very creatively within those constraints and when you have a truly interdisciplinary customer-centric team, you have more tools to interpret the policy in the best possible way for the user.

What’s an example of that?

There is a law called the Paperwork Reduction Act [enacted to minimize the amount of paperwork the federal government imposes on businesses and citizens - Ed.]. You may have noticed that in every government form, there's text at the bottom that outlines how much time it takes to complete that form. The intent of this law is to prevent the government from making users complete bad forms. But many agencies mistakenly assume that user research falls under the jurisdiction of the PRA.

At USDS, we often had this challenge. When we wanted to do user research, another federal government employee would say, "Oh I don't think we can do that, it would trigger the Paperwork Reduction Act." To overcome this, sometimes we would find a lawyer who could help us navigate and interpret policies like this in a way where we could be empowered to do human-centered work.

Another example of a constraint is a policy that sets requirements for service delivery with no real-time data/context: a classic waterfall v.s. agile problem. For example, a legislator drafting the legislation might put in a requirement into the bill that a service has to be delivered in a certain way. Then, some time later (which could be years depending on the length of the policymaking process), the team responsible for the software to make the service available is building it. Mid-build, they realize that the policy doesn’t make sense but at this point, they can’t change the law. This would be the equivalent of a product team in a private sector software company who can't deliver the best user experience because the board of directors wrote the requirements a few years ago.

The biggest lesson learned is that the most challenging civic technology problems are not technology problems at all: they are service design problems, research and behavioral science problems, and procurement policy problems.

What piece of advice would you like to give our readers?

One common thread across my work is that I love being a generalist and working with many different functions, disciplines, and perspectives.

In the tech industry, there are many people who are not very civically engaged but are very quick to criticize government at all levels. And as a person who has done that very hard work of working in public service, part of me says, "If you believe you can be a part of the solution, find a way to help." And people will learn that while it's not easy to implement from the inside the advice they give from the outside, there is a lot they can learn from the experience.

We used to live in a world in which people spent more time in the same organizations, and worked in rotational management programs. People moved between different functions more. One year they might work in marketing, another year they work in finance, another year they work in operations. I could be wrong, but I get the impression that that doesn't happen as much as it used to.

My advice to readers is to take ownership of your career growth, create multiple paths for yourself, so that you have more than the one default path your current organization lays out in front of you. Explore other functions, other industries, and other sectors. Try to see things from the other perspective. You'll learn so much more by expanding the views of the world you’re exposed to.

Learn more about Crystal’s work on her website.

Tony Ho Tran is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His articles have appeared in Huff Post, Business Insider, Growthlab, and wherever else fine writing is published.

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