Designing for Equity

Equity has been front-of-mind for me a lot lately. When Vicky is not in class, doing AC4D coursework, or sleeping, she is working for the City of Austin. I work with a small team of delightful humans tasked with providing effective code education and outreach to increase awareness of local codes and ordinances. Well, that and “other duties as assigned”, of course.

I was recently assigned to serve on an assessment team to help my department evaluate the impact of existing city policies and practices on racial equity. The goal is to use the results of the assessment to implement new policies, practices, and programs to help identify and address the inequities that impact the quality of life for low‐income communities in Austin, which are disproportionately communities of color.

Hands down my favorite article in the latest set of readings for IDSE402: Theory of Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship was an AIGA piece earlier this month by George Aye, co-founder of the Greater Good Studio. If you are working in the public sector, interested in human-centered design, and happen to be reading these words, then it is worth your time. Aye offers a set of criteria or “principles” by which we could judge what is “good design” in the social sector. Effectively, he argues that good design honors reality, creates ownership, and builds power

This brings me back to the work that we are doing to assess equity across the City. We are first taking a hard look at the past and present standing of equity in our departments to honor reality, then creating ownership by getting teams involved at the department level, and finally, we will be building power as we move towards proactive action to solve opportunity areas for improving equity in Austin. If you’re interested in this sort of stuff, all of the departmental equity dashboards are #opendata and are linked here.

COA equity dashboard
An example of a departmental equity dashboard displaying results of the department assessment.

I value my team at the City immensely because we ask those questions that Mike Monteiro references in this piece called “Ethics can’t be a side hustle“. As public servants, we are constantly challenging and iterating upon our outreach strategies and techniques to ensure that we are reaching communities that otherwise might not be engaged. My teammates are deeply mindful about providing equitable service to the residents in Austin, and it is a pleasure to put these theory readings into action every time I step into the office.

Granted, some of these readings felt less applicable for my current career goal of designing for the public sector. For example, Tim Wu’s “tyranny of convenience” is not usually a concern when working in local government, nor is the City yet to the point referenced by Lis Hubert where we are designing apps and interfaces so delightful that they keep our citizens glued to their devices instead of engaging with the world around them. We also don’t have the kind of budget to invest in Kashmir Hill and Surya Mattu’s super smart devices on the taxpayer’s dime.

In learning about human-centered design at AC4D, we often discuss the user and how the user will interact with what we create. Who is our target user? What does the user value? How can we design the best interaction for this user? In my work, this is also a constant discussion because our “target users” are every single human who works, plays, or stays in Austin. This makes designing for the public sector a wicked opportunity, and one that I couldn’t be more thrilled to be tackling.