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  • Writer's pictureLisa Ratner

My Career Journey to Civic Tech UX

From a young age, I’ve been drawn to optimization and frustrated by inefficiency. Today I am a UX Designer and Researcher for the civic tech non-profit Code for America. Work with city governments to improve the delivery of their services to the public. As you can imagine, there is lots of inefficiency in local government. During the user research phase, I observed citizens struggle to navigate scattered government websites, search for a printer to print out forms, manually fill them out, hunt down a stamp and an envelope, mail it, and then not know if the form had been received. On the city side, staff would receive forms with illegible handwriting, manually enter the data into a database (often times incorrectly typing it in). As a user, this frustrates me immensely. But as a UX Designer, I get to participate with those involved to fix it. We identify the most severe and frequent pain points, ideate with stakeholders to come up with solutions, design and test prototypes, and then work with engineers to put our new concept in action.

I just ran the analytics for our newly released product and we are saving the city 66 hours and $3,600 per month that will be reinvested into digital services. More importantly, the impact our organization has on people’s lives is what makes me feel incredibly fulfilled and deeply in love with my work. Government service delivery means helping people with a wide range of needs such as starting a business, getting their children vaccinated if they can't afford it, or receiving food stamps.

I was a Media Studies major in college and dreamed of becoming a documentary filmmaker. I graduated in 2008 right when the recession hit and most media folks were loosing their jobs. I quickly discovered one doesn’t make a living by creating documentaries. Documentarians work long hours on projects they often don’t necessarily care about, and then do documentaries in their limited spare time. I didn’t see a sustainable future in this career and decided to move back up to the Bay Area where I am from. I took Web Design courses at the local community college to add some technical skills to my liberal arts education. I started freelancing by providing websites to small businesses and nonprofits. Once clients had their website up, I was then able to sell my photography and videography services. This was incredibly fulfilling but challenging to be an expert in all three of these areas where the technology evolves constantly.

Meanwhile, I was finding myself attracted to advocacy work, specifically in improving public transportation. I did an Urban Planning certificate program at UC Berkeley and decided to pursue a Masters. I was nervous about pursuing Urban Planning because while I loved learning about this field, I didn’t want to graduate and take a bureaucratic role. When I came across an academy that offered UX Design certificate I decided to pursue UX skills with the plan to apply them to the Urban Planning field. I left my Masters program and enrolled. That decision was a leap of faith because this career path didn’t really exist, even a few years ago. But I felt confident that it should be a career path, that what government really needs is some User Experience Research and Design.

When I graduated it was a challenge to get my first couple of UX gigs because the market was flooded with Junior UX Designers. Through networking and constantly working on my portfolio, I was able get my foot in the door. Some of the early gigs were a struggle for me because organizations would say they were very interested in research and testing, but in reality what they were only willing to pay for were “wireframe monkeys.”

I love wireframing, but only if it is based on research and only if those wireframes are user tested. If those actions are not part of the process, than it really shouldn’t be called UX. I would advocate tirelessly for research and testing but ultimately if those are things you care about, you need to find a company that values those things too. To be able to get to a place where I could be picky about where I work, I had to continue polishing my portfolio and adding new projects to it. I constantly took classes, went to conferences, and helped run a UX Book Club to stay current in the field. If you are switching careers, I recommend repurposing your domain knowledge from your last job to help you get a UX job. Because of my past advocacy work, I was able to break into Civic Tech.

The best part about investing in an education in UX is that all this knowledge helps you become a more empathetic and open-minded person. You learn how to be more observant and how to strike up conversations with complete strangers. I am grateful for the professional opportunity UX has given me, as much as I am grateful for the personal one.

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