Designing for Civic Impact: An Interview with Celine Thibault

Celine Thibault graduated from Austin Center for Design (AC4D) in 2016, and soon after joined the City of Austin as a Design, Technology and Innovation Fellow. Read on to learn about her experience at AC4D —and how participating in and learning a human centered design process through projects on sex education, teenage self-expression, and (even) a “pitch-and-putt” service design shaped her ability to communicate ideas and build value for the communities she is a part of.

How did you find out about Austin Center for Design?

I learned about AC4D through Dave Gottlieb, who was a student at the time. I never considered AC4D for myself because I didn’t consider myself a technologist, but Dave would invite me to AC4D events, and I was always sparked by the conversations I had with students and alum. At work, I felt limited in what I could do and after a few more frustrating years, AC4D presented itself as an alternative. It was a way for me to use more of my skills and go further in my work.

What were you doing before attending Austin Center for Design?

I worked in sales for Juniper Ridge, a small perfumer in California, and as the Visual Director at Treehouse, a sustainable home improvement store here in Austin. Before that, I worked in service, retail management and fashion design. I worked primarily for small companies by choice.

What did you see that AC4D would provide you?

I saw that it would help me articulate, develop, and sell my ideas, if that makes sense. In previous roles, I was sort of banging my head against the wall — I had great ideas but I couldn’t articulate them to the people that mattered. It created not only this frustration with myself, but this frustration across my work environment. AC4D presented an opportunity for me to do that — and a way out of my creative frustration.

Tell me more about your year at AC4D.

At ac4d I worked on two big projects. I partnered with Meg McLaughlin and David Bill on the first. We researched sex education by interviewing women in Austin. Right away I realized that after 3 years of living in the same city, I had a very narrow view of the people who lived here. Research changed that. During interviews, the conversation turned toward other topics. For example, one woman talked about her community being broken up on the East side from so many people moving in, real estate prices soaring, and childhood friends being pushed further out. I had a lot of rich discussions.

Celine interviewing a women in downtown Austin, TX.

The second project spanned 6 months and focused on self-expression among teens. Some of the adults we interviewed assumed teenagers were lost in social media, but we discovered something different. Teens are trying to figure out who they are and they’re trying to do it as carefully as possible because social media is now this permanent thing. Ultimately, we wanted to create a solution where teenagers would feel safe expressing themselves. We designed an app called Realme that teens could use in their school to post anonymous messages within 100 feet of their current position. Other teenagers using the app and in radius can discover and comment on these messages. What that means is if Allie is standing in her high school and she wants to post something that’s important to her peer group, she can post and dictate when the message will disappear from that spot. Nobody off-campus can read it and now Allie has shared something important or reached out to someone else and they have the opportunity to write back.

Celine interviewing a teen in Austin, TX.

We tested the app with one of the teenagers that we’d interviewed, and I remember the moment where she “got it” and started inventing ways she’d use Realme, “There are all these things I want to do with this!” She was actually struggling to meet other people in her school who were gay and this gave her a potential gateway. She was also really into certain shows, but she didn’t have anyone she could talk to about it so she could put those conversation starters out there.

Tell me about the options for anonymous expression. What was the thought around these options?

We wanted to give teens as much control as possible over what they put out into the world. We don’t realize how limiting our current digital applications can be, they really guide the style of the communication we’re expressing. So, if you can create something that puts control in the hands of the person that’s going to use it, that’s better because they are able to articulate themselves as best they can. I don’t think there is any greater power than being able to articulate your own feelings, especially amongst your peers.

Celine evaluating concepts with designer, Sophie Kwok

I know you also worked on a really interesting service design project — full disclosure, I ask because I love pitch and putt!

The Service Design class at AC4D gives students an opportunity to work with an organization in the community. The goal is to create value for the business, their clients and for other stakeholders.

My team wanted to work with a business that gave us the opportunity to really dig in and make an impact. Someone suggested Butler Park Pitch & Putt because they had a connection to the owner, Lee, and she was open to working with designers to improve her business. Lee adopted the business from her step-dad after helping him run it for years. She was totally open to everything. We began by interviewing Lee, then customers, the food truck guys that park there, and employees. We learned that because she had adopted this business from family, there were legacy decisions that were affecting her ability to run the business and there was also a feeling on the golf course that you needed to be a “member of the club” to have a good time. There are a lot of people that come and don’t talk to anyone else, play a round and it’s fun! For people who like to come regularly, there is an established old club and you need to fit in there.

We focused our service recommendations on making it more casual and welcoming for newcomers. We started by making it more approachable at the entrance for new guests. We ended up implementing two of the three solutions that we recommended. Our solutions consisted of updating her menu services, re-configuring the inside of the building and making it easier for newcomers to move around the course. In sum, these solutions lowered the barrier to entry and made people feel like they knew where they were going versus feeling lost. We went back a few weeks after implementation and observed that the desired outcomes were there. New guests felt more confident, the staff’s frustrations had lifted, and Lee was using our recommendations to help her negotiate spending with the city who owns the property she leases.

How did you test or prototype your solutions?

We reorganized the clubhouse layouts, and built temporary signage, paths, and course maps, and then watched customers interact with them. We knew that they were working because, for example, new customers flowed through the purchasing process at the clubhouse more easily because they understood the options, the basics of what equipment was provided to them, and where to tee off.

We came back two or three days after the round of clubhouse prototyping and asked the employees how it was going, too, and they said “It’s a lot better. Things are so much easier for people!”

What are you doing today professionally?

I work with the City of Austin as part of their Design, Technology and Innovation Fellows program. It’s a year-long position with the city, and the largest fellowship program in the country focused on civic technology and services.

Since starting the fellowship, I have been a part of two projects. The first project that I was on was redesigning the Austin Convention Center and Palmer Event Center’s websites. We worked with a great team at ACC and PEC, who guided us on conducting research at events and connected us to event planners, US-based and international, to interview and become familiar with their needs and challenges. We developed research learnings and defined opportunity areas for improving the content and organization of the site. Myself and designer, Charlie Elwonger, drafted user scenarios which helped guide our initial wireframe sketches. We began usability testing two weeks into design, getting great feedback from planners. This helped us iterate quickly. It took a close working team to move so fast — we had a front end developer, back end developer, a project manager and a designer. Soon after usability testing began, I shifted to another project with Austin Resource Recovery, the city department managing Austin waste services.

Austin resident contextual interview focused on recycling and composting.
Austin resident contextual interview focused on recycling and composting.

I’m in the middle of a 6 month project with ARR, wrapping up research and moving into design and prototyping. ARR wants to improve their diversion rate, meaning you are sending less recyclables to the landfill. ARR is an award-winning department. They run innovative pilot programs, testing ideas to help people recycle more. Their primary strategy has been ‘let’s get people recycling correctly, and then we can focus on higher-level ideas.’ That other stuff, like teaching people how to creatively repurpose things, or showing people how their personal recycling habits impact greater efforts are also big motivators. ARR wants to reach a 90% recycling diversion rate by 2040, and we believe to that to do that, we’ll need to work with them to design solutions that play off those big motivators.

Research share out for ARR.

We interviewed 48 residents in the city, and 4 property managers and owners. We formulated our research learning and opportunity areas based on that data and are preparing to share them with our team at ARR next week. The most interesting thing about the project and this program is that we’ve had a core team that includes a member from ARR, as well as individuals on rotation — people from Keep Austin Beautiful, from the Office of Sustainability — and we’re all working together. Everyone has been open to talking and providing feedback, and nobody gets their feelings hurt. It’s been a real eye opening experience for me.

How has your AC4D experience influenced you and your current work?

There are a couple of really big things that my experience at AC4D taught me. One of them is learning how to provide actionable feedback — the critique sessions that we have from quarter 1 to quarter 4, both public and not, are one of the most valuable tools that I learned at AC4D. Forcing yourself to take your work, put it in some sort of medium and putting it up so that other people can come and provide feedback is something that I think most workplaces go without.

Because of this, it slows down the progression of the work, it makes people more attached to their work than they need to be and it holds them back from sharing. Another thing that the AC4D program does well is teaching you to become comfortable in chaos. There are a lot of times in a work environment where everyone feels like we aren’t getting anywhere. We are conditioned to have all the answers and to never be uncertain. AC4D prepared me to know that we are making progress even when it feels like we don’t have all of the answers, because we don’t; but we’ll conduct research, make something, test it, and improve from there.

What do you want to do after this 1 year fellowship experience?

I’ll continue doing work like this. My peers came in with different expertise and private sector experiences and it’s been stellar working with them, learning from them. Everyone wants to work in civic tech and serve the people around us. I’ve never been happier than I am right now in my job. I love going to work, working with the fellows, and I have the tools I need to work through challenges.

What advice would you give someone around how to become involved in design for social impact?

If you find yourself working and not being able to express yourself really well, not being able to sell your ideas, not being able to get as much done as you want to — then AC4D can give you the tools and the peer network to help get you over those barriers. You’re learning methods that help you overcome your own work barriers, as well as the barriers the work environment naturally provides.

Austin Center for Design is a not-for-profit educational institution on the East Side of Austin, Texas that exists to transform society through design.