From Perfection to Prototype

At vizzuality, we believe that the people who use the technology we design and develop deserve a voice in what gets built, which is why we spend so much time learning about people's real experiences and asking users for feedback.

What does it look like to ask for project feedback – before you even start? 

As VP of Development and Impact at vizzuality, I help connect-the-dots between our environmental and social impact clients and our project teams who design and develop engaging digital tools that tell stories through data. One of these dots – in fact, the one I care about the most – is making sure that what we build for our clients is not just what our clients want, but something that our clients’ intended audiences will actually use and enjoy.

When I think about feedback, my mind often goes to something like an ‘after action review’ – what did we do, what worked or didn’t, and what did we learn? But in order to design and develop something that actually resonates with the right community in the right way, we must be willing to collect and act on feedback from our users, stakeholders and partners from the very beginning. Sounds easy enough, but the reality is that asking for feedback can often be scary or even paralyzing – especially in the beginning of a project when pieces of our work can feel nebulous, unstable, or high-stakes, and we want to get things just right.

With this in mind, here are my three easy tips for incorporating feedback into your project design and development from the very beginning:

Know who you’re designing for (hint: it’s almost always not you)

One of my favorite adages from my time at IDEO was ‘Don’t jump to ideas.’ For a firm with a well-known reputation for creative idea generation, IDEO actually has a particularly strong commitment to not jumping straight into ideas, but rather starting first with inquiry, inspiration, observation, and asking questions of the people they intend to reach through their designs.

There are lots of methods for outlining who your users are (the good old pen and paper works quite well), but in essence, it’s important to pause and have an actual conversation with your project teammates about who you are trying to reach and why. Ideally this happens before you have a solution in mind for whatever problem you’re trying to fix; otherwise you’re most likely jumping to ideas and putting the cart before the horse.

Step away from your computer and talk to a human being

How do we make asking for feedback less scary? My best advice is to recognize – and then actively practice embracing – the idea that there is simply no way we can know absolutely everything. In fact, if we knew everything already, we would have already solved whatever problem we’re trying to tackle – making none of our work necessary in the first place!

So, forget the idea that you can know it all, and instead commit to start asking questions. Begin by talking with one or two people (or five or ten) to learn about their world and gather insights to inform what you design. There are a lot of great resources out there with sample formats for interviewing users (some of my favorites come from DesignKit, a how-to guidebook from but truthfully, it’s not rocket science. It can be as simple as a cup of coffee and a few questions.

Feeling adventurous? Once you’re ready to level-up beyond conversations and interviews, give observations a try. It turns out that we humans are hard-wired to create shortcuts in our minds and to abbreviate the steps we take to perform tasks. A time saver for us, yes. But this means we’re really actually pretty terrible at explaining what we do and why we do it. So, to account for this, we can use observations to get at the heart of how our users perform activities, behaviors, processes and tasks in a way that’s unobtrusive, inconspicuous and often quite revelatory.

Stay in touch

Want to know one secret to building something that people will actually use? Invite them into your design process early and often. In my experience, a user will be more likely to adopt a solution – technical or otherwise – if she can see herself in the design and execution of that solution. If I have a hand in determining a feature, or refining a user experience, for example, I’m not only going to feel proud of my contribution, I’m also going to be more likely to use and recommend the solution to others.

It’s true that by staying in touch and creating regular moments for collaboration with our users, we open ourselves and our work up to a slightly messier process – one where more voices and more needs must be managed. But the trade-off – the thing that makes all that messiness worth it – is that by inviting in the feedback of others early and often, we have more teammates to lean on, more champions to share our stories, and ultimately more impact through what we’ve built.

What’s your favorite way for including feedback in your early project design and development stages?


This blog was originally published as part of Feedback Labs’ Three Things Thursday series — a terrific collection of feedback stories in all stages of work. Thank you Feedback Labs for including me!

First Day / Last Day

Yesterday marked my last day as a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow

When I joined the PIF program in September 2014, I didn’t do it out of a love for my country. Sure, the public service element was meaningful to me from the start, but I never would have used the word ‘patriotism’ to describe my reasons for joining. My reasons were more personal, perhaps more selfish – career growth, new opportunities for my family, that sort of thing.

As soon as I got started, it was clear I was in a fight to swim upstream. It turns out that getting stuff done in government can be even tougher than it looks from the outside, especially on a short timeline. The reality is that there have been many moments over the last two years where I have raised my hands in frustration and wished I could quit. 

Yet, as I wind down my stint as a Fellow, I can’t help but feel immense pride at having witnessed and perhaps even played a part (albeit a very, very tiny one) in the impact and legacy of the Obama Administration. It may just be coincidence that I am concluding my federal service as our next election is picking up speed, but watching the battle taking place – for our new leader and for the future of this country – I now understand what’s truly at stake, as well as what’s truly possible when people come together in service of mission that’s bigger than themselves.

Over the last 23 months, it has been a personal honor and privilege to serve my country in the way I know how, to do my part to make our government more efficient, effective and ultimately more successful in meeting the needs of the public. It’s been an experience full of big lessons and small victories, and I am so grateful for all of it. Thank you to all of my friends and colleagues at the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program, the White House, and across the government for inviting me in with open arms and supporting me over the last two years. 

While it’s bittersweet to close this chapter, I’m moving on with an expanded understanding of my own identity and purpose as an American citizen and patriot. I didn’t start out on this course because of my love for our country, but I am certainly leaving with it. 

Role Model in Training

Every day as a parent is a chance to role model behavior. And not just behavior, but attitude, reactions, feelings (and how to handle them). I've said it before but it’s still true: children are sponges and they take their cues from us. Whether we like it or not, parents (and really any adult that interacts with children) are role models.

My three year-old son Eli has recently discovered that he loves to ride the metro. Last week he woke up anxious to take the metro somewhere, so I suggested he take the metro with his nanny and visit me at work. His eyes lit up and he agreed immediately. I kissed him goodbye as I left the house and said I'd see him at the office a few hours later.

When I met him at the lobby of my building, he ran to greet me and give me a hug. We walked around the office, rode the elevator, met my coworkers, and even went into my project space to check out the post-it supply. While the whole visit lasted no more than hour, I soaked up the chance to show him around to my friends and share a piece of my home life with my work life, and vice versa. We said goodbye, Eli left with his nanny, and I went back to work.


The thing is, this visit has stuck with me, sort of buzzing around my head like a fly I can't shake. What made it feel so special? Sure, it was exciting to see him and show him off to people - after all, I am incredibly proud of him and enjoy being with him.

But more than that, I realized this visit was notable because it marked the first time I've been able to show Eli what one version of work can look like. As he makes the transition from infant to child, I see that, in fact, it's one of the first instances of Eli being old enough to comprehend what work is and who does it. 

Every day with Eli I strive to role model polite manners, friendly behavior, and thoughtful choices. This visit to my office was my first opportunity as a parent to try out role modeling what it looks like to be proud of my career, to do work that's meaningful, and to show him one example of what his own work could look like one day. 

As of right now, Eli's professional goal is to be a construction worker, mainly because he wants to wear a hard hat. And maybe that's what he'll become in the end. No matter what he decides, it’s an exciting parent milestone to mark my first opportunity (although certainly not my last) to show my son what a healthy relationship with work looks like. 

Consider me a role model in training!

Toddler Parenting: The Ultimate Crash Course in Being Effective at Work

Me and my little 'extreme user'

Me and my little 'extreme user'

Demanding. Frustrated. Stubborn. Selfish. Emotional. Impatient.

If you’ve ever had a tough boss or a tough client, you’ve probably privately used some of these words to describe him or her. 

Yet, if you’re a parent, you know that these adjectives can also easily be applied to another tough crowd: our children.

As my son makes the transition from infant to toddler to preschooler, I’ve been reflecting on how parenting has changed me as a person and as a professional. My theory? Parenting is by far the best crash course – the best on-the-job training you could hope for, really – for improving your effectiveness and success at work. Here are my top three parenting lessons that also help me at work:

Communication and Empathy are #1

The craziest thing about little kids, even ones who are too young to talk, is that they are constantly communicating with you and you are constantly communicating with them. Whether it’s through your words, your body language, your eyes, even your energy – our children soak up all of these cues even when we don’t realize it.

Parenting requires you to be constantly vigilant about what you are communicating and how you are communicating it. Every signal sends a message. For instance, using words to describe our planned activities for the day helps my son create a mental script that he can follow and find comfort in as we move throughout the day. Similarly, If I’m nervous about my son’s doctors appointment, even if I don’t communicate that message verbally, my body language might tell my son that we’re about to enter a situation that makes me anxious, which in turn creates anxiety for him.

In crisis moments, communication – and especially communicating empathy – becomes especially important. One of my favorite parenting books, Love and Logic, outlines a step-by-step process for how to tame a toddler meltdown. The first step is called “locking in the empathy”. Simply put, this means getting down on on your child’s level, making eye contact with them, and starting first by expressing your understanding for their feelings and emotions. By showing your child that you are focusing on him and his experience of the situation, you’re much more likely to make progress trying to calm him down and move on to the next thing.

As professionals, this emphasis on communication and empathy is equally important. Whether it’s making a recommendation for a new strategy, having a tough conversation, or simply nurturing a professional relationship, being mindful about how and what we communicate is vital both for our clients and for our colleagues. How often and how well do you communicate the planned activities for any given client project, or lock in the empathy with a tough colleague who’s not making things easy for you?

Life is about Choices

This is perhaps my favorite toddler trick and it’s all about control – or at least the perception of control. Being a toddler is tough for a lot of reasons, but a big one is that you’re self-aware enough to want to have free choice and independence, but at the end of the day you’re still two years-old, which means you get to do practically nothing on your own (at least, this is what I think being a toddler is all about). When a toddler confronts this inner conflict head on, it’s like instant internal combustion. So, to help ease this disconnect, you offer choices. 

Love and Logic talks about offering choices that are first, equally acceptable to you and second, don’t knowingly cause any harm to anyone. To demonstrate this, imagine a scenario in which you struggle every night to get your child to eat vegetables at dinner (in my experience, this is a very likely scenario). You don’t care what vegetables your child eats, but what you do care about is that he has something green on his plate. Instead of asking him, ‘would you like vegetables or a cookie at dinner,’ you ask him, ‘would you like broccoli or green beans with your dinner?’ All of a sudden, the conversation has shifted to one about choices, and usually this is enough. Your toddler feels in control of the situation, and your end goal of getting something green on the dinner plate is accomplished (although whether he eats it is another story). 

Since learning about the mind-blowingly effective world of toddler choices, I’ve started playing around with choices at work too. It’s been especially helpful with colleagues when I need to engage them in a conversation about pivoting or redirecting our work to focus on something unexpected. With a little bit of pre-planning before the conversation, I can pick a couple of choices – either of which will work for me – and then present them to the group for discussion. By selecting a few options that I’m ok with and then letting go of the final decision, I’m able to steer the group in a direction that I feel good about, while still including others in the process and giving them ownership of the final decision. 

Staying Present and Mindful

By far one of the toughest things about parenting is that our children make it tough to multi-task. Those pesky kids with their needs and wants! 

In truth, while we all love to check email while watching TV or doing any number of things at the same time, being a parent forces you to put down your devices, your to-do list, and pretty much everything else and focus completely on your child. Parenting is, in fact, the best form of mindfulness training you can find. Some of my happiest, most fulfilling, and most memorable moments with my son are the ones when I am able to drop completely into parent mode: sitting on the floor building a train set, listening to my son describe his day at school, getting lost in the plot of a playful library book. I may never finish cleaning the house or doing laundry, but I’ll also never regret the moments when I stopped worrying about chores and errands and instead spent my time being completely present with my son. 

Being present at work often feels in direct conflict with what I’m supposed to be doing at work, which is being productive. How can I let go of my to-do list and be present at the office when my inbox is overcrowded and my calendar is filled with meetings? My approach to this is to find moments of being mindful in the midst of the day’s chaos. This could look like any number of things, but right now for me it looks like closing my laptop when I’m in a meeting so I can focus on the conversation. It looks like asking how my teammate’s holiday was, and then genuinely listening to the answer. It looks like enjoying the progress my client makes in a workshop, without worrying about the work that inevitably comes next. 

At IDEO, I learned about the value of looking to extreme users, or edge cases, for insights into how to design solutions or services that work for everyone. Three years into my parenting journey, I can safely say that toddlers are most certainly extreme users! 

How has being a parent changed your approach at work? I’m curious to hear what you think.

My Thanksgiving is Perpetual

Channeling my inner gratitude...

As a creature of habit (as most humans are), I find the opportunity to try something new both exhilarating and daunting - precisely because it's a chance to go "off schedule."

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend a yoga class - a class I'd never been to before and that was completely off schedule. And, like most spontaneous occasions, it was a total blessing in disguise. Here's why.

At the end of the class - my arms and legs sore and achy, but my heart feeling full - the teacher closed with this quote:

I am thankful for who I am. I am thankful for what I have. My Thanksgiving is perpetual. 

Sometimes quotes take a few minutes to sink in with true meaning, but this one grounded me right away. My thanksgiving is perpetual. What a lovely thought to carry me through the weekend. 

Since this yoga class, though, this idea has kept coming back to me. The thought that my thankfulness, my sense of appreciation could be felt not just on Thanksgiving Day, but everyday, that my thankfulness could be perpetual… Something about it just speaks to me and where I am in my life right now. 

After some reflection, I've decided this idea of having a full cup of thankfulness, one that's filled to the brim, overflowing each and every day and every moment, resonates for two important reasons. One of them is obvious and easy; the other one takes work. 

First the obvious part - in order to feel thankful, we must be aware of the things in our lives to be thankful for. This point is all about perspective. And boy, I do have so much, and more importantly, so many people to be thankful for. To be able to look at my son - in quiet moments, in funny ones, in sad ones and everything in between - and know in my heart that he feels loved unconditionally. To have a life partner who accepted me for who I was when he married me, and whose love now seems to expand like an elastic rubber band to continue accepting me no matter how I grow and change. To have family and friends who truly listen, who show up and give as much as they can of themselves to support me and my family.

My thanksgiving is perpetual. 

But the second reason this quote resonates is a bit more complex, more layered with purpose and intention. This is about choosing to live a life – really to build a life – that is so authentic to you and your values that it becomes easier and easier for you to continue to fill up your gratitude cup and see it overflow, every day, for the rest of your life. If I want my thanksgiving to be perpetual, I must make choices and tweaks and edits that help me align my outer life with my inner life. This, I think, is where the rubber really meets the road, as they say. And it is, I think, where you'll find the difference between feeling thankful on Thanksgiving, and truly feeling like you are laying the groundwork to feel and experience thankfulness day by day, moment to moment.

My thanksgiving is perpetual. 

Now sure, we can't possibly feel thankful all the time. There is always frustration, challenge, and pain and sometimes the best we can do is hold on tight and work through whatever's right in front of us. But when we’re done, after the water has ceased to be choppy, I believe we are also capable of experiencing gratitude and appreciation for what those challenges taught us, the way they changed us – and that we made it through to the other side. 

With so much heartache and so many inexplicable things happening around the world, I struggle sometimes to make sense of what's happening outside of my own little life, my own little family. I may not be able to ever understand or control what happens to others, but I can control how I feel about my life, the interactions I have with others, and the choices big and small that I make and that make up my life.

If ever I was looking for a mantra, a touch stone that I would like to hold on to, it's certainly this:

I am thankful for who I am. I am thankful for what I have. My thanksgiving is truly perpetual.

PS: Wonder what others are saying about gratitude this time of year? Here are a couple of new favorites that have inspired my thinking this week: