How to: Get Started in UX in Government

Icon of person in the middle of a series of circles
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Every month, I get requests from people in my network and complete strangers to "explain over coffee" any of the following: 
  • The state of UX in government
  • How to build UX into a government organization/ How to structure a UX team 
  • How to create a user-centered or design-driven culture in a government organization 
  • How to get started in UX/ How to get a UX job in government 
  • How to connect with the UX community/ Where are all the UXers?  
It's taken me two decades to learn these and I am absolutely unable to summarize any of them in a 5 minute chat. But I do have a blog, and am happy to compile my thoughts along with links to posts where I have covered these topics previously (i.e. all of the links go to other articles I have written).

Note: I work in the Canadian Government. Other governments might be somewhat different, but based on my international connections, I would say that it's similar around North America, at least, with pockets of wonderfulness here and there.

The state of UX in government in 2020

In 2020, UX is unfortunately fighting for visibility against Design Thinking, which is this year's trend in gov. Design Thinking hubs and teams popped up this year across government instead of investments in creating UX teams or even hiring outside UXers to do much-needed design work on government websites and software. And don't even get me started on the near non-existence of service design at the program level. 

In 2020, people in gov conflate the following terms:
  • They think Design Thinking is User Experience Design (or a heady substitute).
  • They think User Interface Design or Web Design are Service Design.
  • End-to-end Service Design is not something most departments understand. In fact, at the program level, it barely exists; I can count the number of honest-to-goodness program Service Design jobs across gov on one hand and still have fingers left over.
Gov has a lot to learn about what UX is, how it works, and how it can work in a government context. Here are some articles that can help:

How to build UX into a government organization / How to structure a UX team

Some departments throw together UX teams and wonder why they aren't immediately successful in generating positive results with client services or magically initiate culture change. 

UX teams need to cover some combination of the following functions, depending on the project:
  • User Research 
  • Usability Evaluation 
  • Information Architecture (IA) 
  • User Interface Design 
  • Interaction Design (IxD) 
  • Visual Design 
  • Service Design 
  • Content Strategy 
  • Accessibility
Given that UX has so many facets, hiring a unicorn or a couple of resources is not going to generate UX magic. One, two, or three people cannot generate all of the value of a proper UX team. So here's some guidance:
  • If all you can afford or hire at the moment is a unicorn, then bring them in as an advisor. Not as the one person who will do all of the UX. Listen to them, and then outsource the functions that you need filled to contractors. Have the unicorn direct their work.
  • If all you can afford is temporary resources, then they might not understand how gov operates, so between the ramp-up time and the reality check of gov vs. private sector, you need to be realistic about what you will accomplish before they have to leave. 
  • If all you can staff are junior positions, then you need a strong senior UXer to lead them. But the caveat here is that person might feel responsible to do all the work that the juniors' skillsets can't handle. Then you end up with a unicorn and some assistants. If you aren't realistic about what you can accomplish with a crew of less experienced/ less skilled resources, this type of team can burn out the lead as they try to fill in all the gaps.
  • If you can hire an entire team, start with the senior leads. Hire people with experience and who are tapped into UX, better still if they can be tapped into UX in gov.  And use their networks to find the juniors to round out the rest of the team.
  • If you can only hire using technical classifications, you will not find the people you need. UXers are operating in communications, administration, economics, project management, and other classifications because UX skillsets do not align cleanly with the strict classifications in gov. I can assure you that the best Information Architect (IA) won't be someone with a computer science degree; they will be in library sciences or communication. Or, if they're like me, they will have a business degree but be certified as a Business Analyst because they personally are drawn to logic and structure. And you'll find them running an ecomms team deep in an agency because they couldn't find an IA job (which is what I did when I got into gov originally).
Now, if your organization is outsourcing all of its design to external consultants and not seeing the culture change or results it was expecting, here is an article that will help you understand why that tends to happen:

How to create a user-centered or design-driven culture in gov

Congratulations, you managed to staff a team but they keep saying that they feel like they are begging to do their jobs. They never seem to get the time and the space to conduct research, to design, test and iterate, or to implement proper change management to ensure users have a chance to onboard. Maybe your team is user-centered, but your organization hasn't caught on yet. We see a lot of this in deadline-driven departments that tend to announce delivery before the project is even started.

How do you play catch-up? You might need to step back and make sure that those around you understand the value of UX. The articles at the top of this post under "The State of UX in Gov" might be helpful. You might also consider how to embed UX in your everyday work styles, using UX methods and tools to perform the work internally, in addition to using them to deliver UX projects. That is, create a user-centered culture with user-centered methods; teach people outside the UX team by exposing them to a user-centered process to get their own work done.

Here are some articles that can help foster a user-centered culture:

How to get started in UX / How to get started in UX in gov

Ok, so you are interested in a job in UX in gov but don't know where to get started. Go back and read the articles linked in this post. Understand the state of UX in gov, how teams are supposed to be structured (but often aren't), and how user-centered culture is still not a thing (but can be!) and then let's talk skills.

Regardless what you studied in school, the fundamental skills that will help you be a UXer are curiosity, learning, listening without judgement, and an interest in design for purpose. You will also need some good debate skills to advocate for your users, collaboration and compromising skills to understand when it's time to fight for the design or let the issue go in the face of a contradictory business decision, and some thick skin to mine those disappointing compromises for learnings you can bring to your next project. And sharpening your facilitation, storytelling, and documentation skills will serve you for years.

Here are some articles that can help you hone some of those skills:

How to connect with the UX community/ Where are all the UXers?

The UX community is incredibly valuable for networking and learning; and they're pretty cool if you like UX nerds. 😉 There's Design Twitter, tons of international and national government Slack channels, meetups, conferences, blogs... you just need to find the scent with some quick searching and you'll be dealing with an onslaught of information and options in no time.*

Find out how they congregate, where discussions are happening online, find local and national events, learn to tell the difference between community contributors and "thought leaders". This is how you can stay in the know on trends, emerging tools and methods, and find support for your journey. 

For example, in Ottawa, you've got communities like CAPCHI, IxDA, and the GC UX Network. They hold events throughout the year, plus there's CanUX (disclaimer in case you're new here: I'm the co-chair). Nationally, there are plenty of other communities and events to choose from to learn and meet UXers. Internationally, well, there are incredible events all over the world. 

And let me tell you: once you find your community, it's like coming home. 

Here's an article to get you started:

I hope this helped answer your questions! If you found this useful, let me know on Twitter @spydergrrl


*And if you're overwhelmed by the info, this article might help too 😉 F*ck Info FOMO (or Dealing with The Info Spaghetti Monster)