The Informed Life With Cyd Harrell

The latest episode of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Cyd Harrell, a product, service design, and user research leader focused on the civic/government space.

Cyd brings a very thoughtful approach to designing institutional systems, which must serve their purposes over the long term. Producing long-lived systems requires that designers delve beneath the surface (e.g. screen-level design) to deeper strata such as the values that inform them. Cyd highlighted one such value during our conversation, respect:

Respect is for me a really important value in almost every design, but also in particular for government, where whatever the government agency is, it’s interacting with someone who is perhaps an owner because they’re part of a democracy, or who certainly is someone whose dignity is protected in foundational documents like the Constitution and so forth.

If we start to imagine, the easy one for most people is, what if you went to the DMV and it was a respectful experience? What would it be like if I’m getting a business permit or even something simple like signing your kid up for a class at the library? What if that respected your time and your dignity and your abilities in full?

You can start to get even more speculative. What if we came up with a way to make arrests as respectful as possible of the person experiencing them? Why don’t we do that? What would that imply about every feature of a design?

Let’s do something a little bit less critical, say applying for public benefits. What if we took the processes and made sure that they were respectful of the time and the needs and the abilities of our fellow citizens who are experiencing difficulty and need our collective help? These things don’t fit very title and to an AB test, and they don’t necessarily fit very tightly into a sprint.

In 2019 I had the opportunity to collaborate with Cyd and her team on a project, and saw firsthand how she modeled and infused respect and mindfulness in the work. The world would be better if more designers adopted these values as part of their work — whether it be in the civic or commercial realms. Our conversation is a good primer; I encourage you to listen.

The Informed Life Episode 27: Cyd Harrell on Design for the Long-term