Presidential Innovation Fellows

How Serving in Government Made Me a Better Designer and Product Manager

Working in U.S. government sharpened all of my product skills. Here are four practices that techies in any sector can use to build empathetic, effective products.
Clarice Chan smiles, stands next to a United States flag. She is dressed in black and wearing a white shawl.

At the beginning of 2019, I began my civic tour of duty as a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow (PIF). When I made the decision to leave big tech and move across the country to serve, it felt like a leap of faith and a sacrifice. I was ready to give back, ready to pay it forward. One year led to two years, and this journey has been absolutely reciprocal. Government has made me a better product manager and designer. And I don’t just mean better in an altruistic way, I mean it in a sharper, more strategic, more empathetic, and more effective way.

The profession of user experience (UX) designers and product managers is all about using innovative practices and technology to solve pain points for customers. In the U.S. government’s case, these customers are the public — all 330 million Americans, immigrants, and global allies. Government services span everything from conducting the census, to collecting taxes, to providing foreign aid, to regulating autonomous vehicles (and so much more). The challenges we face in the 21st century are unprecedented, so it’s up to innovators and technologists to discover new solutions to society’s biggest pain points.

The learnings I gained working in government are not isolated. They apply to technologists in any government agency, big tech company, startup, or UX bootcamp. Here, I’m sharing my top four learnings in civic tech (so far) so that you can adapt each to become a better designer, product manager, and citizen.

1. Design With Constraints

As a PIF detailed to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), I worked in the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to reimagine how we communicate with veterans. Upon arrival, the task was large. Like many government agencies, VA relies heavily on paper to process claims. This digital modernization effort requires more than simply adopting digital solutions — it requires understanding how we can meet veterans where they are, not where we are.

Veterans pose some of the greatest user-design challenges. We must consider designing a modern experience for a recently transitioning 18-year-old veteran, while equally accommodating a solution for an enduring generation of 90-year-old World War II veterans. The design challenge doesn’t stop there. Whether age, accessibility, digital literacy, connectivity, or a wealth of socio-economic factors, tackling this challenge requires the most rigorous approach to human-centered design.

“Inclusive design doesn’t mean you’re designing one thing for all people. You’re designing a diversity of ways to participate so that everyone has a sense of belonging.” — Susan Goltsman, inclusive design leader

One could argue that designing modern services for veterans is one of the most demanding usability design challenges. Navigating these inclusive design challenges has made me a better designer. Whether health, social services, or justice, government services are arguably the most important and foundational resources for which every American should have a reasonable means of accessing. Government has deepened my practice of inclusive design, and my understanding of design ethics. Today, I begin every design decision asking:

“Who might be eligible for [this service] but can’t access it because of [this reason]? Have we considered non-English speakers? What might be other barriers to access that could create unintended inequity?”

2. Really Live “Customer Obsession”

“Customer obsession” is a buzzword amongst user-experience driven companies. Whether logistics or retail, software or hospitality, this culture of obsessing over your customer is pervasive. This idea is predicated on the principle that understanding your customer equips you (and your team, your partners, your bosses) with the knowledge to build better offerings.

Prior to joining the government, I was a product manager in the private sector. As practitioners of customer obsession, we went as far as constantly promoting an engineering culture of “dogfooding” — figuratively taste-testing our own product before serving it to other customers (it comes from the phrase, “trying your own dog food”). And there’s no better way to simulate trying something than living it. By joining the government workforce, I suddenly became a consumer and customer of the software products I spent the first part of my career designing — from designing browser and OS experiences at Microsoft, to seeing how they’re adopted across a 370,000-employee sized government agency. Now, a customer, I experienced first hand how enterprise software solutions are really experienced in the wild. This lived experience is a competitive advantage.

Now, whenever I’m envisioning a new product, I don’t just think about how it works; I also think about the world and business context where it operates. I ask myself:

“How will [this product] interact with different systems (whether legacy or in the future)? How easy will it be for employees, users, or citizens to adopt? Is it intuitive? What is the year-over-year cost to run and maintain a program or product like this?”

This first-hand insight on strategy, ecosystem, and market or sector readiness brings real business value from customer obsession. Because of this deeply immersive customer empathy, I’m a better product manager.

3. (Re)Define Product “Management”

“What does a Product Manager (PM) do?” is a question I get a lot—not just in government, but also from tech professionals (and even other PMs). While the day-to-day responsibilities of a PM vary significantly, PMs are leaders, owners, and stewards of the final product. They make decisions on goals, they understand design constraints, and they execute from beginning to end to bring ideas to life. While PMs can vary in expertise ranging from business, to technical, to design, to specialized industry, the hallmark of a great PM is often said to be knowing how to get things done.

The government has unique and complex challenges and opportunities. From policies to personalities, you will face decisions, relationships, and technical requirements only known to the sheer scale and responsibility of the government. These constraints make seemingly simple tasks arduous endeavors. As an innovator, your genius is often not measured by what you can achieve with infinite abundance, but rather what you can pull off against all odds.

Government “bootcamp” will test and reveal your grit, hustle, and resourcefulness as a product manager. You will be tasked to solve some of the most impactful problems with resources seemingly unmatched to the task at hand. Through the experience of getting things done in government, I became a better manager; not necessarily a manager of people, but of resources, time, rules, and opinions. Shipping digital products in government has been one of the most challenging (and rewarding) things I’ve done in my career. Hidden within this untraditional product development experience are concealed gifts: patience, perseverance, practice, and mastery. It’s my belief that if you can successfully ship product here, you can successfully ship product anywhere. Working in government tests and strengthens the core competencies of a product manager — there’s nothing to hide behind, and there’s nothing for free. What you earn, you really earn.

4. Innovate via Diversity of Experiences

Lastly, I want to highlight the invaluable experience of working across sectors. “Innovation” is often an overused platitude to signal relevance or something cutting edge. But innovation is really about forging and finding new ways to solve unsolved problems. It’s a practice and process of methodically surfacing new ideas to crack the code. Innovation is often mischaracterized as a stroke of genius, but it’s actually an applied approach to strategically test and validate emerging solutions based on new ideas and new data. This is ultimately what is catalyzing and accelerating this hot topic of fostering diversity in innovation.

Clarice stands in front of a United States flag with three other Presidential Innovation Fellows. All are smiling and wearing professional-formal attire.

Increasing workplace diversity is an important topic, and my goal is to promote professional diversification of experiences. A value both for employees to embrace, and employers to seek. Consider the growth from going from one big tech company to another, versus traversing cross-sector experiences altogether. By leaning into service, and contributing to the public sector, I serendipitously gained insight into an entirely different culture, way of thinking, set of priorities, and even business model.

While serving in the government, I found myself asking:

“How do our motivations change when our customer base doesn’t need to be acquired? What if we didn’t need to hire a “growth team” to reach 330 million users… what then would we prioritize? If not revenue, how else should we be defining success?”

Through this line of interrogation, I quickly realized that overlaying private-sector-style KPIs and OKRs are not as simply adoptable. These structural paradigm shifts challenge me to reimagine what it means to define success, to measure progress, and to design incentives that are aligned with virtue. While unsolved, this breakthrough and discussion could only happen through this rich exchange of cross-sector experience.

In a world where market capitalism and the government hold equal weight in defining and shaping our societal health, it’s empathy and exchange that will ultimately empower innovators and technologists to design responsible futures and reach that bottom line of better lives. We need to find more ways of promoting and facilitating this kind of cross-sector exchange; it’s this kind of user-builder empathy that will ultimately lead to a more inclusive society.

Ultimately, my government experience made me a better product manager and more intentional thought-leader. If there’s a humble truth to my time in government, it’s that there’s more to learn than there is to give.

Are you passionate about technology as a tool to improve lives? Interested in using your expertise for public good? That’s what Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) is all about. Learn more about PIF at our website, and follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn to find the latest work from our Fellows. (Our applications are usually open from February to early May of each calendar year!)