The Human Centered Design Podcast with Gerry Scullion

Dana Chisnell ‘Design for all: Using Design to improve civic outcomes for the US Government’

John Carter
September 24, 2019
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Dana Chisnell ‘Design for all: Using Design to improve civic outcomes for the US Government’

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Episode Transcript

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Gerry: Hello, and welcome to Bringing Design Closer. My name is Gerry Scullion and I’m a human-centred design practitioner based in Dublin City, Ireland. In this episode, I caught up with the wonderful, the one and only, Dana Chisnell. Now, we met a number of years ago when I was speaking at UX Scotland and had a great conversation at that time about design in government. I’m delighted today to continue that conversation on the show. We also speak about her time working on a tour of duty type of project for two years within the Obama administration, designing for comprehension and also, get some more sage advice from Dana about the early-stage design activities to do within an organisation of low design maturity.

First, let me tell you a little bit more about Dana before we get into the episode. Dana is a co-director at the centre for civic design, alongside Whitney Quisenberry.  She’s an expert in plain language and usability for older adults, including ground-grounding work at the AARP, that was the basis for several requirements for the web content accessibility guidelines. She teaches design in government at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, in the master’s levels of democracy, politics and institutions programs.

She also teaches with Whitney Quisenberry, a course on design and elections that is part of the election academy at the University of Minnesota.  The first university program to professionalise election administration. Dana and Jeff Ruben also wrote the seminary handbook of usability testing second edition. Fantastic book. Also, Dana serves on the advisory boards for the U.S. Vote Foundation. Vote at home and the Bridge Alliance. Anyway, let’s get straight into the episode. Dana Chisnell, a very warm welcome to Bringing Design Closer, how are you?

Dana: I am excellent, well, thank you very much for having me on the show.

Gerry: Let’s start off. Define what civic design is.

Dana: My team at the Centre for Civic Design defines civic design as building capacity inside government to deliver a better experience to the public.

Gerry: Excellent. You’ve been doing that for a number of years. I know when we spoke at UX Scotland, we were chatting more about your legacy and now you’ve gotten to that point with civic design. Today, in the show, I’d really love to tap into a bit more about how you got to where you are. That arc of that journey to get to this point is really interesting to a large part of the community. You have people who want to do good. I was so impressed with the amazing work, but also the impact that you’ve managed to achieve in the American voter system. Let’s talk a little bit more about that work in particular with the voter system that you’ve been working on for a number of years.

Dana: Right, so our mission is to ensure vote intent by design. Now, this sounds like not a big deal. If you look at the Irish system of voting and elections, for example, that’s pretty straightforward, but that’s not the case in the United States. We have the most complex ballots on the planet, and the most direct democracy. Which puts a big burden on people. We focus very much on all the things that happen upstream and downstream to make sure that when somebody doe get a ballot, that they can mark it as an informed voter and cast it the way they intend. Then it gets counted the way they intended.

Gerry: That sounds logical.

Dana: It seems logical and it seems fairly simple on its surface, but when you start to look at what it takes for an American voter to get to the point where they have a ballot in their hands, and then understand what they’re looking at and mark it and cast it. None of it is intuitively obvious. It takes quite a lot of work. In fact, a lot of people in our research, participants in our research tell us that voting feels like a test in America. They don’t just mean the steps that you have to take to get to the polling place, but what actually happens when you get a ballot.

Gerry: Yes, why do you think it’s so complex in America versus everywhere else?

Dana: Well, you can thank federalist republican democracy for that. Rather than a parliamentary system, where there are political parties that are chosen to represent individuals in government by proportion basically. Here we do a lot more stuff that is much more direct. For example, we vote on positions in local government. A lot of – you can vote for sheriff in some places. You vote for judges; you vote for dog catcher. You vote for people to be on the cemetery commission. Bigger than that, levelling up to the state level, in places like California and a bunch of other states too, you as a voter can collect signatures to petition to get an intuitive on the ballot. It is very common in the western states to have multiple initiatives, votes initiatives on the ballot for any given election, which happened a lot more often than you might think. It’s not just every four years when we elect presidents. In San Francisco where I lived for 20 years, there were 5 elections in 12 months one year.

Gerry: Wow.

Dana: All of them have local initiatives. Also, there are state laws that require certain kinds of laws to be voted on by the population, by the voters. Most of them are tax related, some of them are changes to the state constitutions. You have to know a lot about how your government works and how all the parts fit together.

Gerry: Yes, so that’s system thinking and that’s systems knowledge that’s required for the customer or for the people to understand. It’s very hard, I’d imagine, to relay that infrastructure to them so they get that understanding, that level of comprehension.

Dana: Yes, especially if you are a new voter, you become eligible to vote when you’re 18. Or if you’re a new citizen and you now are eligible to vote, like taking part of what that system is without any help is pretty tough.

Gerry: Yes, basically what I’m hearing here, is that there are two sides to the coin. One side is, you’re working tactically with the organization to build an internal capability. Then the second side of the coin is making sure that what outcome is delivered to the public is understood.

Dana: Yes, that’s right. We work with county and state and federal election officials in the United States and other countries, we’ve done work with elections Canada, for example. To make sure that they get some design literacy, because they’re designing things all the time, they’re designing forms and voter information and all the things that go into an election, but we work with them to build skills, so that they do a better job with those things. The outcomes for them and for us and for votes, we also spend a lot of time looking at – we do tons of usability testing. A lot of that addresses people with low English proficiency. People with disabilities. Combinations of those issues, to make sure that our recommended wording and approach will work for folks out in the world.

Gerry: Yes, so non-English speakers, as well, it’s probably a big thing in America, same in Australia, when I was out in Australia, designing for comprehension for people who don’t even speak English or read English or write English, designing for that presumably adds complexity to the whole process.

Dana: Yes, for sure. There’s a federal law called the voting rights act that has a section called 203 that requires some jurisdictions based on population to provide voting and elections information in certain languages, depending on what the population is. We do a lot of testing with those kinds of folks and are right now in the throws of building some really cool tools around language access for election officials. Yes, that’s a big thing. There are about 11 million immigrants in the United States, many of which speak English as a second language or have very limited English. They’re not voting. Having language is one of the most important elements to empowering them on the franchise.

Gerry: Yes, before, we were chatting earlier, like, we were chatting about your background and you studied English. As I said to you, I did my homework. Where does the interest in linguistics come from?

Dana: I had to have a minor and I had to figure something out. I thought that I was going to be a high school teacher, but the interest in linguistics was about mechanics, about semantics and about syntax. What I really got interested in was dialects and accents. I fortunately had a really great professor who taught a couple of excellent classes about that. Where dialects come from, especially in the United States. That was interesting and useful in many ways, that I hadn’t expected. For most of my career, it’s actually been more useful for cocktail parties, to guess where people are from. There are usage differences in English, even within the United States that are important for helping people get to plain language. Helping writers get to plain language for the audiences who they’re trying to address. That’s my post-talk rationalization for studying linguistics.

Gerry: No, it’s great because I do one of those ears at… I loved – when people say to me, “What’s wrong with you? Why are you always asking people where they’re from?” I’m like, I’m just fascinated with where people originate from and if people have been in two places, I’m like, oh, my god, I love the accent, you’re English and you’re also potentially maybe American, you’ve been there for a period of time. To me, it tells a story. I guess that story is really at our heart for most design researchers, we’re trying to understand that past and that understanding. I want to go back to the question; we were chatting there a little bit more about the work that you’re doing in government and designing for comprehension and stuff. When you go into organisations, like local governments or even federal governments, how do you demonstrate the value of quality of content? Like, what are the steps you go through to take them on that journey, who they may have been doing the same process for 15 or 20 years and they’re spewing out, sorry, should I say that, they’re outputting like robots this type of content that is at a certain level of English, this grade of English. What are the things you do tactically to get them to the point of realisation that maybe they could do this better?

Dana: We do a couple of things, one is, we redefine community review because that often is a requirement. Opening something up for public comment or a requirement for a community review. Often, what community review looks like is if we are government, we make a committee or a commission and invite people who are advocates likely to represent a group of people to be on that committee. They review the thing. This is the functional equivalent in government of subject matter experts in agile software development. They are experts. They are not the actual audience.

They miss nuances that actually observing people interacting with the thing that you’re making, and writing is very different. We get them to often not only do the community review and the committees, but then to do usability testing. We will take a form or a paper prototype of a website out into a field office of whatever government agency that we’re working with. We’ve been working a lot with departments of motor vehicles over the last number of years because in the U.S. when you update your driver’s license, by law, you are required to be offered an opportunity to register to vote.

A bunch of states have changed how they do that and instead of saying, “Do you want to register to vote? Yes/no”, asking you, “We’re going to use your data to register you to vote, unless you tell us not to do that.” Which is a really different question, it takes a lot of testing. An agency could guess, they could get pretty close probably, but there’s nothing like having data from watching people interact with that question and hearing their questions about it, because you learn, not only, are they going to answer the question the way that we want them too? Are they going to answer the question accurately and legally?

Do they understand what the consequences are? Those are the two big things, is expanding the definition of community review or public comment. We invite them to come with us and actually watch the session. Sometimes we get them to conduct usability testing sessions as the moderators. They get practice. Then they can go and do it when we’re not around anymore.

Gerry: Yes, building that capability, which is fantastic. There’s somewhere along the way here now, we were talking about working in local government or federal government, and there’s a fantastic story which we were chatting about earlier on, about how you managed to get on a bit of a tour of duty with Obama. Now, I’m really keen to hear this story because I can feel that it’s going to be a story that I’m going to be repeating for years to come. Tell us a little bit about it.

Dana: Okay, in 2012, a bunch of us got together and ran a study in the United States leading up to the presidential election, looking at county election websites. This sounds dull and boring. I was invited with Jared Spool to give a presentation to a bunch of people who were called presidential innovation fellows. I think it was the first class of them. A few people were there who worked for the Obama White House. One was a presidential innovation fellow. One was working on the office of science and technology policy. I didn’t really expect anything to happen. We had great conversations.

It was kindred spirits connecting. Then about a year later, I got a phone call from one of those folks who I met, and said, “I’m going to send you an email, it has a White House Seal on it, I really want you to come to this event. I can’t really tell you what it’s about, but it’s important for you to be there. I was like, by now, this person is a good friend and I was really busy, and I said, look, I have a lot of things going on. Can you tell me more about what this is? She’s like, “No, not really, but it’s important and I really want you to be there.” A couple of weeks later, I show up in DC and meet with about a dozen other people.

They’re all technologists and data nerds and I’m the only designer in the room. We have personalised agendas where we have individual meetings and group meetings and the conversations were just really interesting around tech and government and delivering services over the public internet and how the United States government might do that better.

About two thirds of the way through the day, we finished up a bunch of meetings and our handlers trot us across the street, which was Executive Avenue, we were meeting at the Eisenhower Executive office building. Across the street is the West Wing to the White House. We go upstairs to a conference room call the Roosevelt Conference Room, which I had looked at the floor plan of the White House, so I knew that it was right across the hall from the Oval Office.

Gerry: Wow.

Dana: I also knew that president Obama was in town. There we sat, the then CTO Todd Park was holding forth, talking about the artefacts in the room and the art and the important things that had happened in that room and how it used to be decorated. Like, he’s basically killing time. We’re all completely enthralled because here we are in the White House.

Gerry: In the White House.

Dana: Yes. In comes President Obama. We learn later that he was scheduled to hang out with us for about ten minutes, and he actually stayed for about forty-five. He talked about how important it was going to be to deliver services to the American public over the internet. That many lessons had been learned from the failure of when it launched. That he didn’t want that to ever happen again. By the way, there were lots of systems in the federal government that kind of look like that. There was a potential for it to happen again. If we hadn’t figured it out by then, we were there because he wanted us to come work for him.

Gerry: Wow. I’m sure you were in slow motion and you were like, “Yes, I’d love that.”

Dana: He’s a very compelling recruiter.

Gerry: Yes, pretty much. You were like, “I’ll sign right now.”

Dana: Actually, that is not what happened for me. I was living in Boston; I had just got married a couple of months before. My spouse was not going to move his company to DC while I was working there. The work had to be in DC, it could not be done remotely. I didn’t really understand why until I was there. Now, there’s really no question about that. I came home and I told my spouse what had happened. He was like, “You’ve got to do this. We’ll figure out how to make it work.” For two years, I commuted from Boston to DC on Monday mornings.

Gerry: I didn’t realize it was two years.

Dana: Yes, so my co-director at the centre for civic design, Whitney Quisenberry was incredibly generous and patient with me because when I first signed up to do this, it was like a 90-day thing. What can you do in three months? Maybe you could do a lot in three months? On a typical consulting project with a tech company, you can get a lot of things done. In government, the time scale takes a bit longer. I was getting close to my 90s days. I’m like, Whitney, I’m going to stay for a while longer. Like, three more months. Then six months came and I’m like, I actually need to stay longer. Where I was working was with the United States digital service and those positions are term-limited to two years. There are ways to stay longer by signing up with an agency, but I was working out of the White House and that was the deal. Honestly, by the end of two years, I was pretty fried, and it was time for me to go anyway.

Gerry: Back to civic design.

Dana: Yes. Back to the centre for civic design. Whitney graciously allowed me to come back and join the team.

Gerry: It’s a great story. What kind of stuff was Obama saying when you met him? What were the kinds of things that he said was really important for the delivery of service digitally? Can you remember?

Dana: Well, starting with the engineering, if the servers are not reliable, you don’t have a user experience with the system up. That’s a key ingredient, but making services easy to use online, where people have the power and the efficacy to serve themselves when they need it was an important message that came out of that. was a policy program by the Obama White House to help ensure that people who had never had health insurance before would have it. By the end of the Obama administration in 2014, 40 million more people have health insurance than had had health insurance before. That is an amazing metric, and those are things that he talked about, was how to measure what your success looked like.

I think we’re seeing even more important outcomes after the fact, where people are healthier, kids are staying in school longer, etc., because they had this public benefit. Some of what he talked about was just getting systems up and keeping them running reliably. After that, it was making sure that people understand the choices that they’re making in the services that they are selecting and engaging with in the United States. That the federal government deliver a good customer experience, which is a thing that’s an unusual idea, at least it was in 2014 when I joined.

Gerry: Post 2016, you obviously hasn’t been back because Obama is not there, but what have you heard in terms of the legacy that that block of work – was there a succession plan in place to continue that type of thinking and that role of design in the U.S. government? Has that been succeeded?

Dana: Yes, it happened at a bunch of different levels, for example, most of the time that I spent working for the federal government was at U.S. citizenship and immigration services. Building software for immigration officers. That work continues and while I started there with about 100 developers and no designers, now there are four or five designers on the digital service team that is embedded there, but there are also designers on every scrum team. I planted some seeds and they seem to have taken root. I’m very happy about that. This is an example that you see in a bunch of agencies in the federal government, so design is percolating in all of the corners. When you solve the technical and engineering problems, that opens things up for design quite a bit.

Gerry: Yes. I guess what I was alluding to there was the change of officer, was there a peak or trough? Where did Obama sit in that? It’s great to hear that it’s continued, the growth of design is continuing to grow in the U.S. government. I have a question from the Slack community here. I mentioned it to you earlier on, it’s the importance of dealing with adversity and staying resilient in the face of change. For example, in the rise of the right and Donald Trump. What are your thoughts on advice, should I say, to designers with dealing with adversity in respect to the rise of the right?

Dana: I’m not going to talk about the rise of the right.

Gerry: Donald.

Dana: I will talk about how to stay resilient. The first thing is that you have to take care of yourself because if you are not feeling well physically and mentally, you are not going to help your audience and constituents and public. That’s first. Second is to focus, pick and area, pick a thing, and just ruthlessly focus there. One of our funders used the complain that the centre for civic design was not choieful enough. We joke about this word because that’s not a word, but now it has become code for us to say, is this a thing that we should be paying attention to? Is it in our central mission?

Will it help us reach the vision that we want to have? Focus really helps and then third is, finding ways that you can see your outcomes, and how effective your work is being at small and large scales. For example, we don’t work on getting voters out to vote, but we work on things that help others get voters out to work. We know that our work or some version of it touches about one in three voters in the United States. Seeing that number get better and better over time is pretty exciting.

Gerry: Yes, it’s heart-warming. That’s brilliant.

Dana: That’s what I would say is, take care of yourself, focus ruthlessly and find measures where you can tell you’re making a difference.

Gerry: Yes, that’s great advice. Within the community, and I’ve been doing a lot of mentoring in the last number of months, since I moved back from Australia. A lot of emerging designers that I’m meeting, like young graduates, all mention specifically about doing good when they’re trying to get their first job. I guess when we met a number of years ago, I was telling you, I semi accosted you in the reception area.

Dana: Not at all, there was no accosting.

Gerry: There was no accosting, nothing happened. It was just the case of me trying to as you, how does the funding model go about. That’s what I was asking back then. I guess for young designers, wanting to do good, what advice would you give them in respect to getting their first job, how can we help guide design talent in that direction? What advice would you give them?

Dana: There are a lot more options now than there used to be, for example. There are a lot more jobs in government, not just in the United States, but across the world, there are digital service teams and there’s more awareness of the importance of human centred design in government practically everywhere. There are many more options there. Also, there are more networks bubbling up about design for good. There are a couple of Slack channels that I know of, for example, where you can sign up, have a conversation with other people and the network is amazing. Those are good places to look around. Volunteering is a good way to get some experience, I actually started my career as a user experience designer after being a technical communicator, because UCD didn’t actually exist when I started my career.

Gerry: I was like, they had a UX designer? Wow.

Dana: I went freelance. I don’t recommend that you do this right out of school for a variety of reasons that we could talk about in some other podcast, but I wanted to work for banks and insurance companies because I believed that people didn’t know what large companies like banks and insurance companies were doing with your money. That they should. I did things like I wrote all of what used to be called learning centred stuff for e-trade which was one of the first online stock brokerages. I took my doing good there. Now, we have a position open right now at the centre for civic design for a civic design researcher and we got a couple of resumes from people who have been working for large companies, like Deloit and Accenture, in and out of government and it’s not that these people want to leave the dark side, although, I am happy that they are thinking about that in whatever way. It is that they want to expand their practice and they’ve learned a lot about how not only big companies like Accenture and Deloit work, but how their clients think about design and how clients think about product and service. I think having that background could be really useful if you can stay detached. If you were to treat it like, say, an ethnographic study for a couple of years. Then you can use that experience in other spaces.

Gerry: Yes, absolutely. It’s that whole, like, your north star, where do you want to get to, what’s really important to you in your personal values? Not losing sight of that.

Dana: Yes, I think the other part of it is, that design is in a place right now where we can really affect the conversation. I’ve been thinking a lot about second order effects, for example, how virtual assistants are used for domestic abuse, and how whoever makes those products wasn’t really thinking about those use cases, but designers can bring that to the conversation, I think we have a responsibility to be the conscience in the room and ask the hard questions about how this product or this service will affect it’s eventual users and the people around the users. The stakeholders in the ecosystem and the scary part of that is, with those types of responsibilities also comes accountability. If you’re in the room saying, no, we’re not doing that, that means that you have to be ready for the consequences.

Gerry: Yes, that’s fantastic advice. Dana, we’re at the end of the episode, so maybe tell us a little bit more about how people can get in touch with you and where they can find you online and so forth?

Dana: Right, so please come visit us at the centre for civic design at: We would love it if you signed up for our list of volunteers. We call them the irregulars. Not matter where in the world you are because you never know what might happen. Sign up for that, we will not spam you with lots of stuff, just occasional interesting things and requests. You can see all of our projects and a bunch of showcases of states and counties that have used our stuff without our help necessarily. You can email me at:

Gerry: Great. I’ll put links to those sign up and also the website into the show notes and on the website. I’ll also include your email as well in the show notes, if anyone wants to reach out and ask you some questions.

Dana: Lovely, I’d like that.

Gerry: Dana, it was great chatting with you, and we’ll chat to you again soon, hopefully.

Dana: Thanks so much, Gerry, it was fun.  

Gerry: So, there you have it. Thanks for listening to Bringing Design Closer. If you want to learn more about the other shows on the This is HCD Network, feel free to visit: where you can also sign up to our newsletter or join our Slack channel where you can connect with other human centred design practitioners around the world. Thanks for listening and see you next time.

End of Audio

John Carter
Tech Vlogger & YouTuber

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