Q&A with Whitney Quesenbery, Co-Founder at Center for Civic Design
Whitney is an authority on gathering the user insights needed to design products where people matter.
In her work at the Center for Civic Design, she focuses on reaching people with disabilities or low reading, digital, or civic literacy, using her skills in user experience research, plain language, and accessibility.
She is proud of the Center’s work to introduce best practices for election design across the country, including the Field Guides To Ensuring Voter Intent, and work on official voter information guides with the League of Women Voters. Her work on the plain language version of the California Voter Bill of Rights, usable vote-by-mail envelopes, and voter registration has made it easier for people across the country to vote.
Whitney is also the author of three books with practical advice in user experience: A Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences, Storytelling in User Experience, Global UX: Design and Research in a Connected World.
Here Whitney answers questions from the UX community on the ins and outs of running research and testing in government, keeping your own biases in check and generally doing more good for the world.
(Please note, some edits have been made for spelling and clarity).
What have been your biggest challenges working in government? What are your biggest wins? [OJ]
Hardest: getting to know the world and the people. It’s the same. But it’s also really different.
Example: don’t ever tell them how to do their job unless you’ve done it. Instead offer your skills to help solve their problems.
Wins: a bit of bragging here. Having a law passed to let us make changes to the voter bill of rights in California. Reading the results from an election and seeing that your new vote-by-mail envelope design dropped the number of ballots that arrived without a signature from 0.22% to 0.06%.
What are some key differences you’ve found between doing user research for the private sector and for the civic sector? [Maggie]
The single biggest is that it’s not commercial. Tautology, I know, but when I worked at the National Cancer Institute and UK’s Open University, those organizations are respected and beloved. The personal and community value of being part of the research is obvious.
People wanted to share. They wanted to help. They wanted to be part of the mission.
Same thing about civic research. We do a lot of intercepts. One of my favorite intro pitches to people waiting for gov’t services goes something like this:
“Hi there, can I borrow 15 minutes of your time? I’m working with the XXX on some new WHATEVERs and before they print a couple of million forms, we thought it would be a good thing to get some feedback from folks like you.”
It’s completely disarming – inviting them into the process, acknowledging the gap between people and their gov’t and taking the whole thing down to a casual level.
How do you recommend getting involved in civic projects? [Mike]
It can be hard to volunteer. I can only speak for the US here, but…
For elections, start by signing up to work elections as a poll worker. It’s a frontline view of democracy. And they are always needed, so it tells elections offices you are serious. Next, don’t rush in to tell them what they should do. Take your time to get to know them. Ask questions. All the things you would do if you were planning a research project with a new group.
You might also enter through a good govt group. Many of them work closely with government and could use good research and tech skills.
Can you share a useful research ‘war story’ from your government work? [Elizabeth]
Here’s a positive one:
We were doing intercepts at a library near a community college, looking for non-voters. I saw a group of guys parking small motorcycles and bounded over to them (as my research partner stared in horror) and aksed, “You registered to vote?” They proudly replied, “Nope” and I said “Great, you are exactly who I want to talk to.”
The four of them and two of us went into the library, found a table and sat down for a great chat with two of them being the actual participants, but everyone else weighing in.
We learned about learning disabilities, brushes with the law, family history of voting/not voting, challenges in registering… and an underlying wistful desire to make a difference (along with questions about whether voting did).
When working with government, how have you dealt with resistance to change? [Brenda]
This is a huge movement and it’s been a long time coming. That doesn’t mean there isn’t resistance.
There’s always “we’ve always done it this way” and there are structural problems. I did a study for an agency once about ticketing. They were fulsome in their praise. I rubbed my hands together and waited for next steps. Nothing.
TWO years later, they called and said that they had completed work on the back-end that made next steps possible, they had a prototype design, and they wanted to do some testing to see if they got it right (they pretty much had). And agencies are figuring out that the MVP is there to fix the immediate problem, while burrowing into the rest of it in a longer project.
Working in government, is there more of a demand to measure the outcomes of research/design as a way of accounting for how public money is spent – and how do you measure your outcomes? [Elizabeth]
That’s just as hard as in any UX work – and contextual.
Elections are a gigantic quantitative experiment, so we often have tons of data – but teasing out what we contributed can be harder. Exceptions are when there is a single change – like the ballot envelope design mentioned above – and a big measurable result. We’ve never formally measured it, but working with elections offices on their info to try to reduce the number of calls – because fewer people NEED to call is always a good metric.
For forms, fewer errors. For ballots, fewer spoiled ballots or ballots with overvotes. And the best practices come in because they become a checklist.
How do you learn to recognise your own biases in analysing research? [Elizabeth]
There are two ways to think about bias:
- How different is my/my team’s experience from the people we are working with?
- How does the way we work with people introduce bias?
Here’s an example: In working with people with disabilities, what direct or indirect experience do you have? Are you bringing background knowledge, or learning from them?
Then, there’s how we conduct the research: right now, all of our work is remote. Who does that invite in? Who does that leave out!?
As for a bias on the part of the participant:
- Log it and look for confirmation
- Don’t ignore it!
- Think about what else they might be trying to say. Perhaps they are identifying something subtle, but saying it or doing it in a way that is harder to interpret
What visual ways do you present research, if any, in order to tell the story in a compelling way? [Elizabeth]
We do a lot of storytelling, journey maps. But mostly, we try to get the rest of the team to come along on research. We’re often doing research to extract best practices, so connecting that to real examples.
This should be helpful: https://civicdesign.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/FOCE-Prototype-walkthrough-14-1015.pdf
We shared this first in a live, interactive workshop where people worked through the issues. but this made it public.
How do I do more good in the world using my UX career? [Brenda]
First, think about your passions. Climate, animals, neighborhood groups, civil rights… whatever it is, there are others who care just as much. Find them. See where you fit into their work and where your skills can help them do even more amazing work. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Not every group will be a fit. A great place to start is with https://www.bridgealliance.us/. On Twitter, look for #WeavingCommunity. Don’t start your own group or start by building an app. Seriously. That’s not the answer. When you find your community you will know it.
With accessible service design, what is your starting point for revamping a process? [Amy]
I guess most broadly, I’d point you to the book I wrote with Sarah Horton, A Web for Everyone. We tried to think about how the skills and methods in UX intersect with accessibility needs. Rather than a big honking list of requirements.
How has the current situation with COVID-19 affected our participant reach? [Brenda]
COVID has brought plusses and minuses to our research and testing.
Positive: geography is not a problem.
Negative: we’re limited by digital skills and our reach.
We’re being very reflexive about that and taking notes for what comes after. Also as we’ve gotten comfortable with the different ways we’re working, looking for ways to reach deeper into communities through friends, families and caregivers.
If you could go back and give yourself any career advice, what would it be? [Elizabeth]
I did a masters on research methods rather later in my career than most would. It was interesting to fill in some of the theory gaps – while my student cohort was mostly full of people who’d never been in the field. I’ve followed my path and let carefully considered serendipity guide me. No idea if it was the “right” path, but it’s one that fit me.
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