Skip to content

The UX Sense of Service

Civic Tech expert Cyd Harrell on researcher responsibility when it comes to privacy, data, and noise.

Words by Carrie Neill, Visuals by Emma McKhann

Is a good user experience our civic duty?

What does it mean to do UX “responsibly?”

Can we research “attentively” without being “creepy?”

They’re important questions—questions that will determine how we interact, not just with commercial products, but with our governments.

Luckily, they’re questions Cyd Harrell, longtime Civic Tech expert, former Chief of Staff of the General Services Administration’s 18F initiative, and former Product Director at Code for America, is ready to share some thoughts about.

“When I started in this space in 2010, there was one UX designer working explicitly in municipal government in the U.S.,” she says. “Now, there are hundreds. It’s very encouraging.”

Separately, she says, the UX industry has a responsibility to think seriously about “attention theft”—the idea that, in an effort to be heard in today’s climate, we’re all making an awful lot of noise trying to get people to listen to us.

Emails, surveys, follow-ups—this list goes on, and Harrell says it's reached preposterous levels. And while researchers aren’t the main perpetrators of it, she warns we do need to be cognizant of how we might be adding to that noise when we’re asking for feedback from users—and to be careful we aren’t soliciting input in unwelcome ways.

“Don’t be deceptive when trying to get a user’s opinion,” she says. “Don’t be creepy.”

Of course, saying that Harrell wants us not to be creepy might be just a tad reductive. So read on for our whole chat with her about the difference between government and private sector UX, data privacy, and more.

dscout: It seems like one of the big roadblocks when it comes to Civic Tech is visibility—despite the fact that it’s public facing, people often don’t know about the initiatives or work that’s going on.

Cyd: I think that's right. And one of the complicating factors is the complexity of institutional government. You have governments of all sizes, some of which are enormous and some of which are fairly small, but even a city of 15,000 has an awful lot of things they need to communicate and accomplish with a website. Information about libraries, parks, the police department, road maintenance, trash collection, bills, parking tickets, and building permits. And unfortunately, workers in local governments are often removed from some of what we might think of as traditional systems of knowledge sharing or interaction with their counterparts in other cities. Local and regional government organizations don’t tend to send their medium level staff to conferences, so they don’t see their counterparts in other cities, or have a chance to connect and exchange ideas with them. And then when you get to the larger levels, state or certainly federal government, those people often think of themselves as a government designer first, and a lot of them don’t think of going to things like industry conferences because they don’t feel like they’ll be able to share their work.

Why is that?

Mainly it’s because their identity as a government employee comes first—that’s especially true in DC, where there's such a critical mass of people who work for the government and not the private sector. People see that as an important career choice, and there’s sort of a whole separate eco-system for federal workers that doesn’t tend to intersect with the private sector.

The decentralization of the field is something I worry about as the Civic Tech field grows larger. We don't have institutionalized knowledge in the same way that you would in a corporation or even in an academic setting. There are a number of disparate entities and a lot of nonprofits who are doing great work in the space—there was one called “Voicemails to Votes” that was done at the OpenGov Foundation a couple of years ago. It looked at how legislators handle constituents’ feedback, where they use it, how they think about it. There are projects like the Center for Civic Design’s look at voter mindset and barriers to voting, or a report we did at 18F (part of the General Services Administration) on best practices in digital transformation. And there’s a Code for America group that’s been working on research surrounding food stamp applications for six years now, and there’s a ton of really interesting data there.

But because Civic. Tech doesn’t really have a unified community of practice, even at the discipline level, I worry about what would become of this work if any one of these organizations were to go away. The Civic Tech community doesn’t really have archives, or any of the resources that an academic discipline would even if it wasn’t centralized but practiced at a number of different places. So if something happens to one of these non-profits, there’s the potential that a great deal of institutional knowledge is lost.

It really distills what we do down to something with service absolutely at the core, and that can be enormously life impacting. If someone isn’t clear on what kind of information or forms they need and that messes up their divorce case, or their ability to build a house, that has enormous consequences for them—as opposed to say, their order not being shipped out.

Cyd Harrell

There are some pretty fundamental differences between the public sector and the private sector when it comes to user research—in particular, what’s done with user information.

Absolutely. At a fundamental level, I think researchers and designers have a deeply felt sense of service, and in many cases I think that’s true for both those of us in the public sector, and our private sector counterparts.

But here’s something astonishing that makes you realize what has happened to design in the last twelve or fifteen years—everyone in the private sector is now thinking about the step after service. What the next step in the funnel is. In Civic Tech we aren’t thinking about things that way. We're not trying to convert users because it's not even appropriate. The profit motive, the competitive motive, simply isn’t there. We’re not thinking about how we can leverage our interaction with them. We can make sure that someone is issued a building permit, for example, but we can’t have an opinion about whether or not they actually build something.

It really distills what we do down to something with service absolutely at the core, and that can be enormously life impacting. If someone isn’t clear on what kind of information or forms they need and that messes up their divorce case, or their ability to build a house, that has enormous consequences for them—as opposed to say, their order not being shipped out.

Do you think there’s a chance for more crossover and pollination between Civic Tech and the private sector?

To scale innovation, you need to have friendly, nonjudgmental people show up and work beside others. To me it’s exciting to see there are more and more cities that have internal digital departments and there are more and more technologists working for municipal governments and learning from their career government and federal partners. And at the federal level, these groups are less separate from the rest of the operation, which is important.

You’ve also spoken a lot about respect for privacy, and how use and misuse of private data really puts researchers squarely in the middle of one of the most complicated and challenging debates that’s happening in the corporate world—and really, the world at large—right now. What do you think individual researchers, especially those that may work at large companies, should do about this? I imagine a lot of people in UX today didn’t really intend to be in the crosshairs of such a hotly contested topic.

I understand that people at big corporations don’t always approve of everything leadership is doing. But I think it’s important, especially as you become more senior in your job, to do some clear thinking about what your lines are.

As a practice, I try to write down what my red flags would be, even when I’m in a place where I don’t see any. I find if you write them down in advance, then you can note if you’re crossing them before you even start a project. And if something happens that crosses that line, you need to notice that and decide what you’re going to do.

A common complaint from designers and researchers is that they don’t feel empowered at their organizations. And the act of writing down where my lines are is something that’s been very empowering to me. It leads to some potentially hard decisions—and I also think it’s valid, in many circumstances, to actually stay on project if a line has been crossed to try and help. But if you think about it in advance, you’ll know what kind of options are available to you.

For example, we’re seeing more and more open letters from staff to management at major companies. Often just “getting out” isn’t the best option. Especially if you’re a person who carries some privilege or seniority—then I think you have an extra responsibility to stand up for colleagues who may not have as much ability to speak out publicly.

You’ve also written about the concept of “attention theft,” and the feeling that sometimes today it feels like the only way to get noticed is to make the loudest noise—so everyone is blasting noise at each other in a constant stream.

Yes—it’s reached really incredible levels. We’re all constantly getting notifications about things that have nothing to do with us.

If we end up asking a bunch of deep emotional questions about a short interaction, then we’re sort of like the person who proposes marriage after a cup of coffee.

Cyd Harrell

So how do you draw the line between a good faith effort of wanting to make a user’s experience better and impinging upon their time?

We need to think about what Danielle Leong calls “consensual tech.” For me the question of consent is very closely related to the question of privacy. My attention is a very valuable resource, and what I direct it toward is my choice. To the extent that a company impedes upon my ability to make that choice, they’re actually causing me harm. It might feel like a small distraction, but fifty small distractions that you never asked for every day add up.

I think figuring out where the line is has a lot to do with how important something is to a user. If you’re asking me about my experience at a hotel I stayed at for several days, that’s different than asking me about a two-minute experience I had on a website. It’s important that we understand the difference between those experiences. Because if we don’t, and we end up asking a bunch of deep emotional questions about a short interaction, then we’re sort of like the person who proposes marriage after a cup of coffee.


Right. Don’t be creepy. Don't be deceptive. Don’t dance in front of someone's subway seat uninvited.

Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.

Subscribe To People Nerds

A weekly roundup of interviews, pro tips and original research designed for people who are interested in people

The Latest