Photo of Dana Chisnell

Every Day is a Civics Lesson featuring Dana Chisnell

April 13, 2020 by UX-RADIO

Every Day is a Civics Lesson featuring Dana Chisnell on UX-Radio

In this episode we talk with Dana Chisnell about her many contributions to civic design.


Welcome to UX radio, the podcast that generates collaborative discussion about information architecture, user experience and design. Dana Chignell is a pioneer and thought leader in civic design. She’s the editor of the field guides to ensuring voter intent as well as the Handbook of usability testing along with Jeff Rubin. Her team at CCD Center for Civic design was the first to map the experience of American voters. She worked on the anywhere ballot, a ballot marking interface tested for accessibility by people with cognitive disabilities and low literacy. Dana teaches a field course on design in government at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in the Masters level democracy, politics and institutions program, and Dana did a tour of duty as a generalist problem solver for the United States digital service in the Obama White House. In this episode, Chris and Lara talked to Dana about her many contributions to civic design.

This episode is sponsored in part by info beans. Here are your hosts, Lara Fedoroff and Chris Chandler. Hello, and welcome to UX radio. Today we have a very special guest with us Dana Chisnell who is a pioneer and thought leader in civic design, and we’re just thrilled to talk to you today. Here is my co host, Chris Chandler.

Hi, Chris. Good morning. And good morning, Dana. I am delighted to be here in so many ways. Thank you for inviting me, Dana. The one thing I just have to start with, which is your Twitter account, and every day a civics lesson. I’m just wondering, What’s today’s civics lesson?

Dana – I wonder that every morning when I wake up with what’s going to be the big lesson today. I had somebody asked me recently if I had a bot, that just pushes that out every single day, and I don’t, actually so there’s there’s the behind the scenes look. It’s my way of subtweeting about what’s happening in the world.

Nice. It’s so true and so inspiring. I mean, I think it’s really sunk in for me every day is a civics lesson. And people should be thinking more about civic engagement, which is why we wanted to have you on the show.

Dana – Well, you know, for better or worse, mostly worse, although I hope we’ll come through it all fine. So much is happening right now that people are learning from that. Well, rarely have so many people paid so close attention to what’s happening in the federal and local governments that they are part of, while this is maybe not the ideal way to learn how government works, but at least people are paying attention now. And I hope they’re taking away inspiration to be active. Right.

Lara – So where does your drive come from to share all your knowledge around civic design?

Dana – Oh, well, I don’t feel like I need to own anything, it doesn’t do any good if it’s all held in one place. I mean, it’s civic after also, like, let’s share it. But it was always a principle that we worked while I was at the Center for Civic design, which I left at the end of January 2020. And they the team there continues to share everything that they’ve learned and to make excellent products out of those things that are also open and free for use by anybody. Yeah, one of the advantages of working in a nonprofit space is that while you might want to make things that other people call products or services, you don’t have pressure to monetize those things. And government is better, the civic spaces better. Life is better for the public, when all of that information is is shared first in the spirit of building capacity inside government, like you want everybody to boost their design IQ, right? Because when that happens, things get better forever. But also, there’s so many people working in parallel on similar spaces that it makes sense to put it out in the world and see where the convergences are. How did you get involved in civic design? How did you get involved in the Center for Civic design? So there I was minding my own business in then 90s doing what we now call UX for banks and insurance companies and tech companies. But I was did it sort of from a social responsibility bent, like I had this long contract with a trade when it was a startup. My job was to write all of the online help and learning content. And I really did it because I believed that people needed to know what the hell they were doing if they were going to put their money in the market.But then came along the 2000. election. And for those of you who are too young to remember what was happening then al gore and george bush were the main contenders for president in the in the presidential election. And it all came down to a very close election in Florida. were one of the possible reasons for there being something like a 500 to 600 vote margin between the two presidential candidates was ballot design. And people were coming out of the polling place. And I’m not sure I put it for the guy I meant to vote for. And I was like, that’s a design problem. Like, I wonder how elections get done. And so I lived in San Francisco at the time, and I emailed my district supervisor and I was like, hey, Aaron, how do I find out how elections get done? And he’s like, so you just go down to City Hall. The election departments in the basement. And you introduce yourself and you say I want to learn about how elections get. And so I did. And that was that was kind of the beginning of that.

That led to and sort of was coincident with some other research projects that I got asked to help with, like, super nerdy stuff, because I was working in plain language a lot, got invited to work on a study about instructions on ballots for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. And then I got lucky and was at a reception at a tiny little symposium where somebody said, Oh, my God, he’s the head of elections in Washington State, like, we should be doing user research and usability testing. Why are we not doing that? And so over time, I had developed this hobby. So I was letting banks and insurance companies and tech companies subsidize my civic design, hobby and impail what Whitney quisenberry was doing other interesting projects related to voting in elections and design, usability and accessibility. And in 2013, a coalition in California came together, they had actually come together in 2012. But they got some funding and put out a call for grant applications. And the executive director of that coalition called us up and said, You, too, will make a proposal. And you will go do some work on this, which ultimately led to two big things. One was our forming the Center for Civic design in 2013. And a complete redesign of voter guides in California. That’s amazing. That sounds so exciting to work on and also to see it in the implementation. Well, it’s interesting too, because nobody else was really paying attention to that space at all. Like how hard could it be to mark a ballot and cast it. But there are obviously a lot of design needs. But in those days, we could just go along, quietly doing our thing working with county and state election officials, little by little developing tools that they could use. And in the meantime, developing and expanding the this little library of the field guides to ensuring voter intent that are loaded with research based guidelines. Super simple and cute. And I mean, the books are cute, the guidelines are dead serious. But that was kickstarted. The field guides were a Kickstarter campaign that originally funded them anyway. So you know, we just went about our business doing these projects here and there and publishing out what we were learning and then going to state conferences of election officials and county clerks and teaching about design and usability testing and then in 2013, we got a little help In some ways, by the failure of So that doesn’t seem like it would be related. But the Venn diagram has a pretty large overlap. Because when launched on October 1 2013, a few million people showed up super excited to get health insurance for the first time and see what Obamacare was about. And the server’s fell over, everything crashed, as nobody knew inside of government, what to expect in terms of traffic on the site. But over a few months, a bunch of people came from the private sector to stay in that side up and rescue it and keep it going. But a lot of what we learned about that was that all of it is actually the experience that the user is having. If the server doesn’t stay up, that is the experience that the user is having. And now you have this inflection point for a lot of people paying a lot more attention to design in government across
board all the levels.

And so what was the anywhere ballot part of that work as well? The one basically that was designed to help cognitive disabilities and low literacy. Yeah, so in 2011 or 12, something like that. The election Assistance Commission put out a pretty sizable pool of money for grants for what they call the assistive technology initiative. Assistive sorry, a VTi. The This is the boating technology initiative. And keep your acronym straight. Dana and government work. Right. Exactly.
Like you don’t want to flip the team of V because that national security something something

Anyway, there we were. The central Pacific design hadn’t formed yet. But the design firm that we’d worked with on the field guides oxide design CO is based in Omaha, Nebraska, was really interested in this work. The beginning inspirations were done by And it was one of the first projects that they sort of opened up to the public for ideation as they call it. People actually submitted ideas for making voting more accessible. So drew Davies, who runs oxide design is like, I’m totally in love with this idea. We had worked on print valid design several years before that. He’s like, we we need to do a thing. Like, I don’t want to do anything about design. Nobody ever there wasn’t any uptake on the thing that we did before. I am, I’m done. I’ve got it and I’m gonna go do something else. He’s like, No, really, we got to go do this. And so we put in a grant proposal and we got it and
that is what became the anywhere valid.

Dana – Was it was a digital user interface that was standards and browser compliant, which, you know, in 2012 2013 was kind of a big deal. Right? It was not just a given that you could do that our thinking was there had been a lot of work on accessibility for people who were blind or had mobility issues, but like, what could we add to that body of knowledge by doing user research and testing on this important UI with people who have who are on the spectrum or who have low literacy or who have low English or who have short term memory loss, and we learned a ton is great. It almost seems I must feel nostalgic for the days when worrying about accessibility and voter intent were my primary concerns about voting in this country. Just sort of curious. I mean, it. In the design work, to what extent do designers get involved in things? Like, is there a paper trail for ballots? And how are they audited? And like, how does that all come together? We’ve been in the throes of those discussions for the decades that they’ve been going on. Actually, Whitney was very involved in the standards making around all that stuff and the drafting of legislation, in particular a bill called the Help America Vote Act, which passed in 2002. That included some of those standards. So yeah, always part of that discussion. And every now and then a thing happens in the space where, oh, let’s say security becomes an important topic. And now somebody wants to trade off the usability and accessibility and privacy for the security that our position is that you can, you can have it all. If you have all the right people in the room, you can get to good solutions. One of the things I personally I’m always surprised about is how distributed and different all the systems are right like that that voting happens in different ways, depending, I think down to the county level generally. I’m not sure I’m actually that’s probably a better question than a than a statement. And I wonder if I could ask you an unfair question, sir. Along those same lines, which is how concerned are you about election security based on what you know, you have living in a Federal Republic, to thank for all the different ways, states approach elections, there’s practically nothing in the constitution about how elections get run, and probably because of how we grew up as a country. You have all of these different election cultures that kind of bubble up. So we can ask Jesus, there are 351 towns and cities that run elections whereas in California and Washington, Oregon, it’s almost exclusively counties that run elections in Wisconsin and Michigan townships. So like, now, you know, the level of trivia that I’m good at cocktail parties invite me, invite me to your next corn teeny party.

For the second question around security, this is a really big deal. I am very concerned about it the results of the 2016 election, no question, were the result of foreign countries actively persuading people to stay home. Now, I think the thing that surprised us all about that was like, we were not expecting hacking of our culture and society. We were expecting hacking of technology. And well, yeah, there was some hacking of technology like that was not damaging, really, and is preventable pretty easily and
election administrators all across the country have much better tools now than they did in 2016. Thank you to a department in the Department of Homeland Security, actually, that works very hard and making sure that election officials understand what they need to do and help them do it. So while some level of that is in hand, and people are working really hard at that humans are clever. And humans are going to come up with other ways that you haven’t seen before, to screw with voters, that will affect the outcome of elections. So if that’s security, then yeah, I’m pretty worried about it. I’d love to change the subject a little bit and get a little bit of insight into how fascinating was it to work with Obama.

Dana – I wish I could say that I was in the room with him every day, but I was not. Um, I was not that important, but they probably The United States digital service from October 2014, to October 2016, was amazing. Everything was urgent and important. We were basically standing up a startup inside the executive branch in the federal government. Nobody had really done that, since the Peace Corps was formed in 1960s. And we were all learning all at the same time about how to do it and how to make it work and how to get things done. It was both a very heady experience because you walk in the room and people know that you’re from the White House, and they change their behavior. And that’s just weird. But also it was the most challenging and most frustrating work I’ve ever done in my life, just like trying to bring user centered design to the back shop, major government agency, what made it so challenging? Well, so I spent most of my time working with
US Citizenship and Immigration Services, President Obama had put the digital service team there because he was planning on taking executive action on what’s called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA. Dreamers. And his idea was to expand the program and he was pretty sure his team was pretty sure that us cis was not ready for the influx for the for the volume of requests for benefits, they were going to get there at the beginning of their of a digital transformation. So up until about 2012 100% of everything that us cis did was on paper, you filled out forms on paper, you sent them in on paper you paid on paper, you know, by the time you became a citizen, your file could be thousands of pages thick, and so all those files get stored in salt mine and Kansas and then moved around the world. By 2014. They were a couple of
years into their digital transformation during the work themselves, like they had contractors on site. But federal career folk were running the project and being product owners and product managers, which was really fantastic. So there are 100 developers there and like 12 technical leads, and six or eight business analysts and 25 ish career feds are running the project in various ways. And no designers. Sounds like the normal ratio.
Yeah, pretty much.

Dana – So I had to figure out how to sort of bump up the design literacy, because I couldn’t possibly do all the design there was going to be to do and didn’t want to like that was not going to work well, for me to show up and say, I know how to do your job better than you do. Like that never works very well. So
I spent a lot of time working directly with the business analysts and the front end developers to help them
Understand how the work of let’s say a naturalization interview actually happens. So one of the simplest but the most important things I managed to get done there was setting it up so that developers could go sit in those offices and watch the interviews get done. And that changed everything. While it’s always the same secret sauce, isn’t it? It’s amazing to me, you just said, totally one of my favorite things, which is nobody actually understands how things work, right? Like, somebody figures out at the beginning, here’s how this interview process and then paperwork is going to get done. And then somehow it just gets done. And everybody sort of forgets, or loses interest or the original people are gone, or, I don’t know, maybe our brains are just good at like when something is routine, just not you know, we just stop focusing on it. But it’s incredible how no one really understands how things happen. They just sort of happen. There’s a system all of a sudden, and just exposing people just saying like, hey, let’s actually watch this happen is pretty much this the secret sauce? Yeah, that’s exactly right. In fact, my project partner, Molly Ruskin, and I had gone out to some service centers to do some user research about how DACA got adjudicated and came back with, you know, some really simple reporting out and the Chief of the division actually stopped in my office and said, you know, we never actually knew how that worked on before. Yeah, I want to jump ahead to the to the president work backwards a little bit because I know that you’re, you’re doing some new work right, you left the Center for Civic design, the beginning of the year, so I’m curious about what you’ve been up to in 2020. Yes, I went to work at a civic incubator at the National Conference on citizenship. NCIC was founded by Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman, post World War Two. The idea was to tap the patriotism and civic engagement
People felt during the war and and try to keep that going. They have held a conference every year for 75 years, or some kind of convening. Most of these events are about helping community based organizations continue to promote civic health in their local communities. But MC OC looked at what was happening in the world in the country and decided they wanted to run some experiments, and so invited a few projects to do that. One of them is the one that I’m part of, we call it project redesign. I am doing this work with a couple of people who I worked with when I was at the US Digital Service and the White House. And we’re exploring how government can do more user centered policy design to move design further upstream. Wow, could you say a little bit more about that user centered policy design? I mean, it sounds both wonderful and horrible at the same time.

Sausage just delicious.

Dana – We’re all familiar with user centered design in creating user interfaces, mostly digital user interfaces. But of course, you know, this extends to lots of other kinds of design as well. In parallel policymakers, policy analysts have been using a design process for as long as it’s been professional or practice. And they do what they think of as community involvement, which mostly is asking experts and academics and in some cases, heads of community organizations, to advise them on laws and regulations and things like that. But they hardly ever go directly to the people who are meant to be the recipients of the service that the government is providing. And so this leads to unintended consequences. Usually not bad, but
Perfect like you don’t get the outcomes that you want, necessarily. And so for one of my favorite examples is Again, so 40 million people in the United States did not have health insurance at that time. Many of them had never had it. And so now you open up an exchange where it is possible to get affordable health insurance, but nobody thought of the fact that there wasn’t anyone to help people learn how to use it. So because people didn’t understand like out of pocket costs and what a copay was, and what the deductible meant. People were paying for insurance and not using it. And so while we got a whole bunch of people insured, and later we see that outcomes are really good in terms of people stayed healthier, which meant that they stayed employed longer, their kids stayed in school better and longer, etc. Imagine how much better the outcomes would have been if we’d been able to build into the implementation of that help for people to learn how to get the most out of their health insurance. So that’s the kind of stuff that we’re talking about. And so what what impact do you hope to see through your efforts that you’re working on right now? Well, at the highest level, we’re really hoping that we can influence government culture to think more and interact more and get more exposure to people who they are serving. And that that just becomes an natural and obvious way to do the business of government. And we’ll do that through various kinds of projects. We’re hoping. Right, right. And so this since it’s a nonprofit, it is something that you’re looking to others to help fund. Is that correct? Yes. As well funded as MC OC is we are in an incubator, and the idea is that we would spin off and in the meantime, we do need funding.

We’re looking for funding from foundations and philanthropists who are interested in particular policy areas, let’s say oh climate or something on the opposite end like student loan repayment streamlining. Now, we also have a massive stimulus bill to help in the recovery from COVID-19. That has tons of opportunity, for example, provisions for unemployment assistance for people who have gig work or for contractors, any of whom may never have applied for unemployment insurance before. So if you know any foundations or philanthropists who are excited about any of the things that are in the stimulus bill and want to make sure that has the best possible outcomes, we love to see their funding come through to help us work on that you can send the check directly to Dana.

We’ll include a link in the in the show notes for that dinner, you said something earlier, there’s never been as many people paying as much attention to what’s going on in, in our civic society as there are now. So I another two part question, if you don’t mind. I’m curious, what’s some stuff that’s out there that’s really inspiring to you in this space who’s doing incredible work? Where are they doing it? And then, you know, anything that you could say to people who might be listening, who are paying attention and are really wondering how they can get more involved, like what would your advice be to them? There are now so many people doing so much good work from public benefit corporations like Nava that are doing contracts directly with government. In some cases, doing Greenfield work first, where they’re like, these kinds of benefits are messed up, we’re gonna go make a thing and then gift it to government or get a contract where they can help implement. So that’s sort of like on the serious work you work and and Nava has a big and growing team of designers and developers, that’s an ABA. So all the way from that and to lots of smaller local kinds of efforts. So code for is an obvious example. It’s not only code, it’s all the cross functional folks you would want to have on team working with states and and cities to pay for services. And they have some benefits specific programs that they’ve been running, for example, they’ve been working on supplemental nutrition programs in states like California and Michigan, and there are opportunities there. But there are Code for America. They’re called brigades or chapters in lots of local cities where they’re also working on projects with local cities and counties. Those folks are self organizing volunteers. So that’s a good place to get plugged in. There are a bunch of efforts going on right now in response to The COVID-19 crisis was called the US digital response. There’s a link for our website for that, too, that I’ll give you put in the show notes where you can fill out a little form that says how to contact you and what your special superpowers are, what your availability is like and how you might be working on projects from local responses to make sure that people don’t go hungry to federal projects, implementing the kinds of things that came through on the stimulus bill at the federal level. And a lot of that is unpaid, but things that you can jump into. Now, if you want to come back to the election space elections are going to continue to happen. And one of the best things you can do especially if you are someone who’s under 60. And you are healthy, you don’t have any immune system issues, is sign up to be a poll worker. Although vote by mail probably will be a lot more available to a lot more people. In the upcoming elections, there are still a lot of primary elections and statewide elections and local elections that will happen over the next month that don’t have the ability and the capacity to do vote by mail. And there will be pull a lot of polling places that need people to do that work. It is paid, it’s a long day and need a little bit of training to do it. But it is also really fun and very enriching on a personal level to see your neighbors neighbors come through the polling place and make sure that they get a chance to cast about those are great ways to get involved. I’m really excited that you’re sharing that with our audience.

Lara – Another question that we love to ask our guests is, Dana, what would you like your legacy to be so hard to talk to humble people when we ask that question?

Dana – What would I like my legacy to be I think I’ve been working on it, which is why I don’t think about it is I do work because I like it, I don’t really think about the legacy, how can I leave the world a better place? And I guess I do that through developing this practice of civic design and inviting as many people into it as possible. So think my legacy will be more people doing more and better work to serve the public better through public services. Wow. That’s amazing. We’ll see.

Chris – One last question for me about, about your teaching. So I’m sort of curious from the teachers point of view, right. What are the things that your students like know the least amount about or are surprised to learn or the thing that you feel like you need to sort of like really hammer home to them, like what are those big issues that maybe was a surprise to you?

Dana – So I teach one course at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. I just loved seeing this course it’s challenging this year because we have to do it online. And my philosophy about design is that it’s highly interactive and highly collaborative and highly user centered. So like figuring out how to do this online is, is hard at in my class right now I have people spread out in time zones, too. So like one student is in Dubai and another students in California. How do you do teamwork anyway, the things that surprised me about students who are in my class, well comes back to that exposure thing again, right? Like they’re used to looking at spreadsheets and case studies. And when they start to meet with even if it’s just a resume human beings who are not like them and who are experiencing a problem that public policy can affect change around there.I’m stunned at the richness and the depth of the learning that they get from hearing about the experience that real people have. So the way we’ve started to talk about this is that the users are the experts.

Chris – That’s so radical. I know.

Dana – I’m all for a bit of subversion here and there. Are there some collaboration tools that you’ve enjoyed using for this class? Yeah, there’s some super simple ones, like you can do discussions and like think pair share things, just using Google Slides, where people put their notes into the speaker notes, and then you can sum up all the insights and put them in slides. Everybody has those, like, that’s a super simple thing. I’m on zoom like 20 hours a day now. It seems like everybody is but also the students are about to start using virtual whiteboards to do it.

Some organizing and synthesis activities, some journey mapping and service blueprints. And there are a couple of really good ones out there. A lot of people know about mural, I tend toward the Miro, which used to be real time board, real time work. And there must be other ones like those. But it’s amazing how you can sort of Jerry rigged things like Google Docs and Google Slides to make them collaborative across time and space.

Lara – Well, it’s been so fabulous having you on the show. You have a plethora of knowledge, and you’re such a delight. We’re just so thankful for you coming on the show today.

Dana – Well, it’s my absolute pleasure. Thank you for inviting me. And thank you for enduring my enlists talking about my long career. Getting what it really has been a pleasure, Dana, always great to talk to you. Thanks so much. Likewise, Chris. Thanks again. Lara. Thank you.

UX radio is produced by Lara Fedoroff and Chris Chandler. If you want more UX radio, you can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes and Google Play or go to UX dash, where you’ll find podcasts, resources, and more.

This episode is brought to you by Philosophie. Philosophie helps entrepreneurs and organizations validate and develop their promising ideas through agile design, rapid prototyping and software craftsmanship.

More about Dana

  • Get involved with NCoC, The National Conference on Citizenship
  • Dana on LinkedIn
  • Dana on Twitter
  • Dana’s Harvard Kennedy School Profile
  • Dana’s website
  • Dana’s books on Amazon
  • Dana on UX Magazine
  • Democracy is a Design Problem – Dana Chisnell [Camp Digital 2019]