Making the Mindset Shift: An Interview with Digital Democracy Lead UX Designer, Sabella Flagg
- Mapeo - an application by Digital Democracy - enables indigenous communities across the world to document and map all kinds of useful data – from essential resources on their lands to environmental and human rights violations.
- Through the OTF Usability Lab, we worked with Digital Democracy to examine how to approach design work in challenging circumstances (such as a global pandemic) and support them with customized tools and resources.
- We interviewed Sabella Flagg, Lead of UX Design for Digital Democracy, who we coached and collaborated with on this project.
Through the OTF Usability Lab, we were fortunate enough to work with Digital Democracy (Dd) on Mapeo. Mapeo is a mobile app that enables indigenous communities across the world to document and map all kinds of useful data – from essential resources on their lands to environmental and human rights violations.
Together, we tackled a range of design challenges and learned a lot along the way. We examined how to approach design work when there’s little or no opportunity for user research (due to, say, being in a global pandemic), and developed a tool that enabled the Dd team to walk through scenarios and surface internal knowledge in order to make informed design decisions. We also developed a resource that explored best practices around recovery keys for low-tech users, and strategies to protect people and data against mobile device seizure. Both of those challenges involved connecting with the Human Rights Centered Design (HRDC) community and our Slack network of human rights defenders that work in security and design. It was an excellent lesson in uplifting the work of others in our ecosystem who have tackled similar challenges, and we were able to present the Dd team with workable, tested solutions and examples that could work well for Mapeo in different contexts (keep an eye on our resource library for these tools!)
We also did one-on-one coaching sessions with Dd’s Lead UX Designer Sabella Flagg, which was a wonderful opportunity to learn from and collaborate with a fellow designer working in the internet freedom space. We interviewed Sabella to learn more about her journey, her work, and her experience collaborating with Simply Secure.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Simply Secure (SimSec): How has the Usability Lab and your experience working with Simply Secure impacted your work on Mapeo?
Sabella Flagg (SF): Coming to Dd meant designing for new audiences that I hadn’t had a lot of exposure to in other parts of my career and so naturally there’s a little bit of uncertainty and learning that comes with that. The one on one coaching sessions with Simply Secure were incredibly useful to have a set of experts to review and double check my work to make sure that I wasn’t introducing harm with any of the concepts I generated and to learn from.
Also with the world on lockdown it meant I would be unable to lean on our programs team, who would normally be in the field throughout a year, for user feedback and insights. Having Usability Lab and Simply Secure on board felt like having more touch-points for feedback, and from others who worked with similar audiences. When the world opens back up we feel prepared thanks to the interview and workshop guides Simply Secure provided.
SimSec: What resources, tools, and/or experiences from our coaching do you plan to return to going forward?
I am also new to designing for decentralized tech so when SimSec shared decentpatterns.xyz it was a resource I immediately saved in my bookmarks. Definitely a super useful asset I know I will return to time and time again. It was great to have a library that I could reference and learn from separately and bring things back to the team that I found compelling and interesting.
SimSec: Could you tell us a little bit about your journey? What did you do before joining Digital Democracy and what motivated you to join the team?
SF: Previous to joining Digital Democracy, I’d spent most of my career working at innovation consultancies – the small shops that are idea generators behind big corporations. So I got to work on some pretty cool and fun projects, and I definitely learned a lot. That’s where I learned about what a UX researcher is and how to work with one. I kind of rotated through different industries throughout the year, so I got exposed to a lot of different things. The last consultancy that I worked with, and what drew me to them and drew me out here to Seattle, had a goal of increasing their social good and nonprofit work, and I was like, “That is what I want to be doing. I’m on board.”
They didn’t meet that goal, and at some point, I got burned out of a project that was kind of notorious for burning people out of the agency, and I left to take a sabbatical where I used art therapy to heal from burnout. I restarted my art practice, which kind of fell away after I left college, and then moved into doing freelance design work. And specifically, I was trying to find work in the social good space. It’s rare to find an organization that needs design, and has the funds for a designer. Also being in Seattle, it’s very easy to fall back into Big Tech. So it’s like, every time my contract ends, like a fight, it’s like alright, I have this much time to see if I can find another job. Luckily, my time with Dd keeps getting extended.
SimSec: A lot of that sounds familiar; social good orgs not having the space or funding for designers. Since you’re working directly on a product that human rights defenders on the ground are using, can you tell us how you think design helps human rights defenders do their work?
SF: It definitely feels like important work. I’ve definitely been on projects [in the corporate world] where I’m just like, this quite literally does not matter. Like, is this organization really paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to make people click this button more? I cannot believe it. And so when you move from a place of excess and commercial needs and wants, to one where it’s like, your audience is asking for this because if they don’t get it, they will literally die. It definitely adds a different sort of weight to the work that you end up doing.
And, I mean, even that work that “doesn’t matter,” I still approach it with the same thoughtfulness and care because this is my career that I’ve chosen to do and I like doing design and I think this is important and even on those projects. But the sense that the work will actually help someone progress something that is actually important adds a bit more weight to the decisions that get made. I definitely dealt with getting stuck on decisions when I first joined because it’s a completely new space for me to be designing in and a different audience. And again, with the pandemic not being able to ask the person who’s in the field, “now can you check and see if this color combination we’re using is accessible?” It felt scary working through that, and finding ways to organize the decisions that you do make and knowing that you will get partner feedback – it may take a bit longer because of the way the world is right now, but you will get that feedback. Making your way through the gigantic list of requests is a daunting task, but when you finish one feature, it’s a good feeling.
SimSec: Coming from a commercial space, I’m wondering what you’ve had to learn and unlearn about how you practice design and design thinking entering the “humanitarian” sphere? Do you have any challenges from the transitions that you would like to share?
SF: Yeah, definitely. Oh, before Dd, I was on a project that dealt with organizing data for the general populace. And on that project, I learned so much about how we as designers can show bias when we design graphs that just have data. So you show two graphs, both of them have the exact same data, one of them is biased, because the design is different. And that blew my mind!
Coming to Dd, I had the exact same experience in looking at some of the patterns that I kind of take for granted, or I think of as very general stock patterns that users are expected to know and to learn. All of that was Western learning and for a Western audience.
So you know, my first couple of meetings with [Gregor on the tech team], we were gonna have a date picker. I was like, “oh yeah, here’s all these stock react date pickers, we could use something cool like this…” And Gregor told me more about the human factor around the ask, and he mentioned a lot of our users don’t just do remote mapping for this project. That’s not their job. It’s something that they volunteered to do because it’s something that’s important to them. They’re working in the fields. They’re farmers. They do manual labor. They will build up calluses on their hands. So I’m looking at these date pickers I’m like, oh, yeah, these are standard touch targets, like 40 pixels by 40 on mobile, like that’s totally fine. And Gregor tells me: “I have seen users struggle to tap things on their phone, because of the calluses that build up on their hands.” And all these little date pickers I have the little tiny numbers and arrows, more than half of these are unusable in their current state. So that was my first example of something like that.
So me coming in with Western solutions and then learning about the specific needs of our audience and then adjusting from there. So now I go through this process of: “okay, they asked for my design solution, the first thing that I thought of is…” and inspecting, “is this a very Western solution that does not translate well, for an audience that is potentially has low tech literacy, which is also an audience that I’m very new for designing for, that has low access to consistent Wi Fi, that may be in a super remote area?” Often, [none of the solutions] match, you know, the audience that I run into when I walk outside. There’s definitely inspection of every idea to make sure that I am meeting the design principles that I need for our users.
Another thing that helps is to think about solutions in terms of generalized human behavior. Sometimes we start new projects and I spent two weeks just doing research. And I think: “Okay, is this the finding of this research because of the audience? Or is it because of human behavior?” And if it’s because of human behavior, then that helps make the solution be more generalized, right? So even if you’re dealing with someone who has medium literacy with tech, which means like, they have WhatsApp, they have Facebook and Instagram – you can glean from the apps that they use what human interactions they are comfortable with. And those sometimes match how we use them the Western Hemisphere, or they might be using them in unique ways because of their specific situation.
SimSec: What’s on the horizon for you? Anything that you’re looking forward to either in life or in your work?
SF: In life, I just got into my first artist residency, which will be happening next year, in early spring. So I’m super, super excited about that. I’m going to be in remote Washington on the coast. I told everyone, “Okay, 2022, I’m going to try and be less afraid and more proactive.” So I have and that happened – I mean, that feels really good.
And in terms of work, the first program team members are going out in the field, and it’s really increased my desire to create a centralized location for Dd for partner feedback. They do an amazing job of recounting their experiences and the things that they’ve seen, but I really want to get that into a place where that information lives out of their heads so that they spend less time having to tell it to the next new person that comes.
SimSec: To sum up, do you have any advice or suggestions for designers who also want to move from the formal design industry to work in nonprofits, civil society, or design for good?
SF: The main difference with working in this industry is that when you go on job boards, there aren’t a plethora of them to look at. Versus like any tech industry job role, you know, I go on LinkedIn, and there’s 1000 of them.
What helps me is to read job descriptions to get the full expanse of what is available in the industry. So other industries have quantity, and nonprofit space does not. So that means if you’re not in the nonprofit space now, but you want to be, you should be looking at design for good job boards, social good designers Facebook groups, and things like that – you should be joining those now. So whenever job postings do come up, you start building that idea of what is actually available, because by the time you are ready to make your move from one job to another, it’s likely there’s going to be like three design jobs available. But just being aware that there are not always a lot of opportunities in this space, and so building a catalogue of what is usually asked for, and also being prepared to be in a startup mentality, in terms of the number of hats you have to wear, but without the startup stock options, like wrap your head around that before you join. It doesn’t mean that you should start doing things that you don’t want to do, but make sure that you are clear on the value that your skills bring.
Project Contributors: Ngọc Triệu, Ame Elliott, Katie Wilson, Digital Democracy
With support from the OTF Usability Lab.