Summit Sneak Peek: Human-Centered Research and Design with Julie Sutherland

Julie Sutherland began her time at Code for America as a Fellow, and in the 3+ years since has done research and design work across nearly every single one of our programs. At this year’s Summit, she’ll be participating in a breakout session panel on accessibility, as well as co-hosting our first User Research Help Desk to advise and encourage others. We asked Julie a few questions about how she got into UX research and design, and the importance of keeping real human needs at the center of both.

What’s your current role at Code for America, and how did you first get involved with the organization?

I’m a Senior Designer and Researcher currently working within our criminal justice portfolio at Code for America, but I’ve had the opportunity to work across a whole bunch of initiatives at Code for America in the 3.5 years I’ve been here. Since I decided I wanted to be a designer, I’d been trying to get into socially relevant design, and was always interested in working on complicated public services. The model for that was my dad who worked for the State of California for his entire career and ended up as a policy chief for CalFresh (though it wasn’t called that at the time). I’d always seen civil service, or public interest work, as a career path, but not necessary as a design career path. So when I saw there was a fellowship for UX Designers at Code for America, I applied. I started in 2016 as a Fellow working with the California Department of Justice on a RAP sheet fee waiver. Since then I’ve worked on understanding a bunch of state benefits programs through the Integrated Benefits Initiative, supporting evidence based practices in probation on ClientComm, expanding food benefits to people who get SSI (low income and seniors and adults with disabilities) on GetCalFresh, and now I’m working on national criminal record clearance on the Clear My Record team.

What does “designing better government” look like to you?

From my vantage point, it’s all about the people on the other end of the product or service. That’s not just the person getting conviction relief, or the caretaker of the SSI participant helping get their family member benefits, it’s also the worker on the front lines of those services. Every success I’ve had I can link to good research that involved those folks. From crafting the right research questions, to casting a wide enough net to find the participants you need to learn from, to testing your ideas as collaboratively and transparently as possible, it’s about getting as close to the actual, real-life experience around a government service. Once you see and communicate that experience clearly, you can build a kind of shared agreement and path to improving it.

I think we also have to have practical optimism and patience to take on a redesign. These programs and issues are complicated, have histories, and with that varying legacies of harm, and that includes both the government worker and often profoundly the person applying for or interacting with the service. So step one is take a deep breath, get out there, and see things how they actually are. Only then can you all figure out how to improve it.

Tell us about the User Research Help Desk. What are you hoping that people will walk away with?

The Help Desk has one main goal: encourage attendees to do more (and better) human-centered research when they leave Summit. At previous research sessions I’ve run or seen run, there are often a number of audience members who come up after with fairly specific questions about a user research or engagement type project they’re trying to do back home. We (Rachel Edelman, my colleague/co-organizer, and I) thought “advising sessions” would be a great thing to offer to people, encouraging more folks to do more research-oriented work when they leave Summit.

Since I’m always looking to enlist other people in basically everything I do, I immediately wanted it to be cross-organizational. I love our Code for America qualitative research team, but qualitative research in the public interest is an emerging community of practice, and the researchers in this community are inventive, adaptable, driven, and really special. So we had to get everyone we could involved. In talking about the idea to friends in other organizations, everyone seemed pretty bought in, so we’re doing it! Rachel and I have reached out to all the researchers we could find presenting at Summit, and then all the ones we heard *might* be going to Summit, and now have researchers participating from a lot of the leading civic design organizations. We’re still doing final confirmations, but we’ll likely have expert researchers from those organizations as well as state, local, and federal digital service teams.

The session is the second day of Summit, Friday March 13th from 1:00 to 3:30pm. Ideally Summit attendees who want a 15 minute appointment sign up on this form before the 13th, but we should also have some walk-in appointments available. It’s going to be pretty casual, it’s a self-organized affair so its a bit of an experiment, but hopefully works out well!

What are you excited to see at Summit?

There’s a lot. I’m likely going to be hanging out in the Design + Delivery and Tech + Policy tracks. To that end, the sessions I’m definitely going to see are the Canadian Digital Services breakout on accessibility, Civilla and the Michigan department of health and human services session on human-centered policy, and more lightning talks this year. I didn’t see nearly enough last year. One I’m pretty interested in is Ben Trevino’s on Hawaiian ancestral knowledge (Kupuna Kalo: A Fight to Preserve Ancestral Knowledge and Messages). Taranamol Kaur, Ben Sheldon, myself, and Lauren Jong (from our neighboring San Francisco Digital Services team) have our own called “Accessibility is People Centered” which I’m pretty excited about too.

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