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4 Thoughtful Principles for Service-Minded UXR

It’s time to radically restructure how we serve those in need. Here’s how UX can step up to the plate.

Words by Tony Ho Tran, Visuals by Emi Tolibas

As UX professionals, we’re primed to have a significant impact in the way vital social services and programs are designed for the people who need them. Through thoughtful, considerate, altruistic UX, we can bolster—and save—lives.

This is not just a relevant consideration for the times that we’re in—or one that’s specific to the nonprofit or civic space. It’s a consistent social imperative for UXRs in every moment, and every industry.

We sat down in a recent webinar with Taranamol Kaur (Code for America), Nate Mahoney (San Francisco City and County Digital Services), and Aditi Rao (18F)—all leaders in the world of civic and community design. Between them, they’ve helped local, state, and federal orgs serve their communities through housing, healthcare, and jobs programs.

Below, we’ve summarized their insights on how any org can embrace a civic-minded approach to their design and research.

This conversation was recapped from a recent webinar with Taranamol, Nate, and Aditi. It’s been edited for clarity and length — but you can stream that webinar on-demand here.

1. Your participants are non-disposable

Nate Mahoney: Working for [San Francisco] has been eye-opening. People have relationships with this city that have been ongoing for a very long time.

For example, I was recently doing interviews with third and fourth generation business owners. So you hear these stories about how the grandparents started a business, and now the next generations need to figure out how to keep this business running during a pandemic.

Previously, I had been doing usability work, and thinking about how we need people to get eyes on a product. This is really a different approach.

We want to start building relationships with these people so that we can come full circle, and even go back and show them what we were able to do with the information that they gave us.

One of the findings that came up for one of these business owners is that the communication that they do and don't receive from the city is so important. When they're hearing from the city, and they're understanding what they need to do, it's a great thing. But, if they're not hearing anything, that's a miss.

Taranamol Kaur: It's hard to just do one interview with a person and say, "Hey, we're going to extract all of your knowledge," and then that's it. That's the end of our relationship. That isn't co-creating. That isn't bringing in community.

And I think especially in this work, it’s not okay for folks who we depend on to relive their traumas so that we can make a change in the application. That becomes so problematic.

We're really grappling with that, especially within the pandemic. Our research team and our client success team have really changed the way that we do research. We saw thousands and thousands of messages that were coming in from folks who are going through our digital application and telling us, "This question doesn't make sense. Why are you asking me about income? Why are you asking me about jobs? The pay stub that you need me to upload right now isn't going to match what I'm going to get in two weeks."

So, us in that moment, being like, "Hey, do you want to get on an interview with us?" isn't the right thing.

We really have to think about how to do non-extractive research. How do we do research so we're not constantly asking people to extract information and relive their trauma?

Adito Rao: At 18F, we are very empowered as employees to say, "This is a project I would like to work on, and this is a project I would not like to work on. It does not align with my values." So I definitely am able to really focus on the reason I came to work in government public services again, which was to serve as many people as possible, and to improve the lives of as many people as possible.

Ultimately in the private sector, money is the driving factor. A business needs to make money to exist. The bottom line ends up being money even when you, as a user researcher, are there to say, "I care about the people we're serving with this product." I remember spending a lot of my time trying to show how serving people would actually improve the bottom line.

But here, in the federal government, almost every federal employee that I have worked with cares deeply about the mission of the agency that they work at. It is so inspiring. Every agency has a mission that is about serving the public.

The other difference that is key in our work is that public services are for everybody. We need to serve everybody. They need to be usable, useful, and accessible to everybody. That means we avoid the trend in technology of, "Oh, we can leave out the edge case.” We don't have that choice.

And oftentimes with the services that we're working on, the edge cases are the people who need them the most. They're actually the people that we need to be focusing on and centering our work on.

We really have to think about how to do non-extractive research. How do we do research so we’re not constantly asking people to extract information and relive their trauma?

Taranamol Kaur

2. Empower the users you’re working with

TK: We have to keep folks informed throughout the process—to invite them back in and make it not just a one-time thing. We do a lot of work with community-based organizations. That's where a lot of our recruitment comes— folks that are on the ground, doing this work every single day.

So keeping them informed helps them feel like they’re genuine a part of the process. That feeling of “this is yours.”

It also comes down to how we see ourselves. We are not experts in any domain that we are working with. We're just facilitators in that process. So letting folks lead the way on whatever is happening can ensure we are shifting that power.

NM: We've had a lot of success with collaborating with community benefit organizations. Just seeing that over time strengthens our ability to explain what we're doing.

Often we're talking to people who have never been a part of user research before. They don't understand how websites are built, and they just assume it's a one way street. That the website they're using is the one that they have. So, there's a bit of a nice moment when we're able to make that connection that we can make changes based on their feedback.

So these relationships are ongoing, and we're building community through these community benefit organizations. That's something that is a really key component in terms of who we're engaging with to get feedback on our work.

AR: Some of the research that we do can be a little constructed. We talk about the relationship that we have with the people that we're speaking with as extractive — that it's not a one time thing.

How can we not just make this extractive relationship and continue keeping them involved? Why are they participating in our research? What are they hoping to get out of it so that we can maybe give that to them?

Maybe involving them on a controlled basis, not just one time. Updating them on where the project is going overall, and also then they get to see how their involvement has impacted the project. Especially if it's a service or product that they are using, or may use, or may benefit from. They can see how their involvement hopefully has improved it. That's what we hope for.

The truth is, people get a lot from seeing that their involvement has made a difference.

We are not experts in any domain that we are working with. We’re just facilitators in that process. So letting folks lead the way on whatever is happening can ensure we are shifting that power.

Taranamol Kaur

3. Meet your stakeholders where they are

NM: We have several departments. They've been working fairly independently. But now we're using some tools, like a dashboard, to show research projects across all teams because we're finding that there's a lot of similarities.

Another thing that we've done is started a rolling research program. This involves all of the teams, and they can put in their usability questions — usually the valuative kind of questions—in on a monthly rolling basis. That’s been great for sharing our learnings and breaking down silos.

We learned that a lot of our work has to do with forms and improving forms, and those are on housing and sites. It's been helping us to think about a design system and standardization—about the content for these forms and what we can do to make sure they can work for everybody.

We have the beginnings of a research repository in a Slack channel. Whenever a team finishes work, they do a little writeup, and they post it to the channel. Then you can see this rolling list, and can go back to see what previous work has been done. That will continue to grow, and it's a nice way to share and start thinking about best practices so we don't need to recreate the wheel. What previous research has been done before, that we don't need to do again?

TK: Airtable has been amazing for us to really keep a good repository of the way that we are coding, sharing insights, and tracking research to design.

I think synthesis and sharing synthesis is different depending on each project. A colleague and I, last year, put up a multimedia synthesis where we had done usability testing, and we made it a museum walkthrough. We put a playlist up, with each insight correlated to a song. We learned so much.

And sometimes it is hard for folks that haven't done the research to really digest everything. Sometimes a deck isn't the best way. So it's about really thinking through how we are sharing the things that the team needs to move forward. Is it a multimedia museum walkthrough? Is it a deck? Is it an email that says, "Here's a link to all of our research, but here's the top three things that you need to take away?"

It's always different. The way that we share out is different. The way it's documented is the same. So if anybody needs to come back and look at our research, that is the same. But the way that we share out is really different every time.

AR: I believe that whatever way your audience is used to being communicated to is best. If it's PowerPoint, I'm sorry, just give in. Do a PowerPoint.

On our current project we're doing a deck, and I'm a big believer in journey maps. But we're actually translating journey maps into storyboards to really humanize what we've learned. We incorporate statistics that we've learned, that back it up quantitatively. So people can see that there's a correlation between these numbers and that context.

4. If times are different, do it differently

AR: Right now, we are asking the question, "Do we need to even be doing research at this moment?" There's already bias in our recruitment. We know that. The people who are able to participate are the ones who have the time, energy, and resources to participate.

That's just only heightened at this time. And so we are asking the question, "Do we need to be talking to users?” “Can we be learning things in other ways? Can we do our research later? Can we use heuristic methods to evaluate what we're working on? Can we do surveys? Do we research on the internet where the types of people we're interested in talking to congregate and learn by reading what they've already written elsewhere?

NM: Work for the city of San Francisco right now means that we've had more work than we've ever had before.

It started out with just getting information out on the website so that people can be informed. And then it switched over to putting digital services online, because everything's closed, and people need to have services online. Then the big piece of thinking about a civic-minded approach is who you are engaging with. And how do you engage with community benefit organizations?

That's been the real big thing for us—to really think carefully about who we're talking to, when we're talking to them, how we're reaching out to them, and building these relationships. I think that's the thing that's, if you're looking at this civic-minded space, the key area that has been different for my experience of working in industry before.

TK: My biggest advice is letting go of ego, which has really allowed me to be in my community.

It's not about us. It's about us as a collective. To do real good work that is truly in service, one has to remove themselves from the process. One has to center around the community. In what my faith is called “Sungut,”—this concept of service is to whoever we're building, creating, and being in space with. That has to be at the center.

While I've been at Code for America, we've been learning this. And our qualitative research team has been grappling with the concepts of what does it mean to do good design? What does it mean to do good research that is in service?

And not through the lens of “human-centered design”—where we're trying to create a solution, or find an insight, or get x amount of clicks on this button. It's not about that. Those metrics and measurements don't exist in the same way in this domain. It's about how we sit, and talk, and be with people. How do we really listen to them?

My other piece of advice is to read books by BiPOC communities. Read women of color. Read people who aren't privileged to be in the normal design sector.

This concept of UX and human-centered design is not new. It's existed long, long before it was coined as UX or user experience, whatever you want to call it. And building around community, and love, and healing as a collective has existed long before any of us have been doing this work. So learn from those people that have been doing that work.

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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