Leading the Field: Jamie Renee Williams
For our “Leading the Field” Q&A series, we’re speaking with leaders in the civic/gov tech space who are driving important change to make government work by the people, for the people, in the digital age. For Black History Month, we’re lifting up the voices of Black leaders who are working to ensure the government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect. This week, we spoke with Jamie Renee Williams (she/her), one of our Staff UX Designers. At Code for America, we welcome a broad diversity of viewpoints—and we strive to let people speak in their own words about their own unique experiences. With that in mind, the following has received only minor edits for length and clarity, and the views expressed here reflect those of the author.
What drew you to working in user experience (UX) design? What experiences have contributed to your success in the field?
I feel like my gift is taking things that people say and their emotional and psychological reactions and translating all that into a good experience. It’s something I’m naturally good at, and I think it comes from the fact that I was exposed to a lot of different things when I was younger. I grew up in the military and moved around a lot. I lived in Japan as a kid for a long time, and I’ve always had the sense of being an in-betweener. I remember coming back to the States when I was 12 and going, “What is this place?” Even though I’d lived here and been raised in an American culture, I felt like an outsider. But that gave me the skills to see new angles and perspectives that don’t come naturally to other people.
I didn’t know what UX design was for a long time. When I was in undergrad, I did anthropology and had an interest in archeology. I worked for a while as a filmmaker, and then in advertising. All of these things involved a lot of interacting with people and making observations about them—and it taught me a lot. I’m a curious person, and all my other experiences led me to UX. It’s a culmination I didn’t know was happening at the time. I’m really satisfied when I can help design a product and be proud of the architecture of that experience.
In addition to being a designer, you’re also a poet and a gardener. How do all these interests overlap and feed one another?
I think gardening shows up the most in my design thinking. One thing I notice a lot in nonhuman organisms and systems is their interconnectivity. Something happens in the soil and it impacts all these other things you don’t necessarily see the connections between. Soil quality changes the nutrients in the plants that grow, and that affects all the people and animals who eat those plants. That’s what an ecosystem means—interconnectivity. Having really tangible experiences of interconnection helps me think holistically about other types of systems. I can understand where there needs to be diversity and where there needs to be redundancy. That’s so applicable in the design work I do.
Having really tangible experiences of interconnection helps me think holistically about other types of systems.
Poetry, on the other hand, helps me understand the emotional experience people have with a system. People think technology has no emotion, and that humans are logical and rational, but they’re not either of those things. We’re having emotional experiences with systems and technology all of the time. And with poetry, it’s all about being evocative and bringing out emotion more than narrative because it’s such a short format. Poetry isn’t bound by the same rules as other types of writing; it’s a way to draw texture out of language.
The pandemic has been an isolating experience for many people, and so much of your work focuses on connectivity and relationship building. How do you stay in touch?
Patience. Time. Last year I had the feeling things were scattered, as if I had dropped a bunch of marbles on the floor and they scattered all over. It was hard to accept that some of those things I dropped were going to roll away and not come back. But it also gave me the chance to pause and think about what I actually wanted to pick up. I do think it’s important to let go of things sometimes. And to give yourself and your community the time to grieve a season that’s passed.
I had a big spiritual awakening the year before to the pandemic—so when it came, I was mentally fit. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t felt prepared that way, because it gave me the opportunity to hold space for people as they went through their own big changes. In that sense I’m grateful. As a person of color and a Black woman, I felt like there weren’t a lot of spaces where I was seen before the pandemic. Now I feel like I’m thriving and building my voice in a space of opportunity that wasn’t here before the pandemic. I’m seen on a larger scale, and I would think that there are probably other Black people having similar feelings of reconciliation and reckoning. I hope those aspects of the past few years continue.
What values do you think are important to consider when building tech products? Where do you see more opportunities for technology to be used in promoting social justice?
I’m not a person who believes technology is inherently good or evil—I’m not interested in the binary. I’m interested in the ways we prioritize certain values that go into building it. There are some technology trends that scare me, like the exponential growth of artificial intelligence (AI) right now. If the values of our technology systems are all about extraction and expansion and building hierarchies, our technology is going to reproduce the biases we’ve always had.
Technology in the past, and still now to a degree, has emphasized speed and breaking things as we go. Sometimes slowing down is valuable. For example, something I worked on while at Tinder was a change to our user reporting systems. It had originally been built to go fast so people could report harassing users quickly. But we found out that the ease of it led to trans members getting reported a bunch. So we added some friction to slow things down. Weighing intentionality versus speed is what designers do.
There’s a lot of potential in technology to emphasize other ways of being if people are open to building new value sets. The awareness and intentionality in tech is what defines its outcome.
If the values of our technology systems are all about extraction and expansion and building hierarchies, our technology is going to reproduce the biases we’ve always had.
Storytelling is a big part of what you do. Have you been impacted by any powerful storytelling lately?
I recently read a book called Restoring the Kinship Worldview by Wahinkpe Topa and Darcia Narváez. In it are 28 precepts of Indigenous knowledge about connectivity and how these inform our relationship with the planet and each other. It was a really interesting contrast to our dominant world culture—when you think about it, we’ve been around thousands of years and only in the last small fraction of our existence have we behaved this way where we think of ourselves as independent beings. We’ve largely lost our kinship relationship with each other and with nonhuman things, who have so much intelligence stored beyond our reach. I don’t know when the moment will be when people can see knowledge like this and be receptive to it, but I think that book has some really deep meanings that could impact everyone on the planet. It’s influenced me quite a bit—it’s one of those books that makes you say, “I want to forget everything I know and live in this alternate world.”