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Four questions with the CFPB design team

Designers Mollie Bates and Natalia Fitzgerald are intimately acquainted with the ins and outs of consumer finance. Not only did the two personally feel the effects of the 2008 market crash, but both helped build the design team at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), an organization “devoted to empowering consumers to take more control over their economic lives” through leadership, education, and enforcement of regulations.

Bates and Fitzgerald will be speaking tomorrow at 18F on their experience building the design team at the CFPB, as well as more generally on their approaches to user-centered design. In anticipation of this event, we sat down with them (in a metaphorical sense) to chat. Below are the results of our email-based conversation.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.

18F: Before starting with CFPB, what was your take on the average American’s knowledge of consumer finance? What did you identify as the biggest problem regarding transparency and communication of consumer finance data, and how did your views change once you began working at the CFPB?

Mollie Bates: Before starting at CFPB, I think I had just a vague understanding of the cascading problems in our economy created by people not fully understanding the terms and risks of their mortgages. I don’t think I had any awareness of the average American’s knowledge of consumer finance; I was only familiar with my own struggles to read the fine print on a credit card contract or calculate the impacts of interest on my budget. Now that I work at the CFPB, I have a much broader understanding of the variety and complexity of consumer financial products that consumers often deal with, from mortgages and student loans to prepaid cards and debt collection. The terms and risks of these products are so complicated; as designers, we often play the “average American” role on the team when we’re working with lawyers and economists. If we don’t understand it and can’t simply explain it to others, we know our audience won’t get it either.

Natalia Fitzgerald: I was living in Chicago in September 2008 when the bottom dropped out of the market. Prior to the market collapse, I didn’t consider the average American’s knowledge of consumer finance. But, I imagine that my experiences mirrored those of other Americans. I can still recall my feelings of financial uncertainty and vulnerability. Despite all attempts at frugality and budgeting on my part, I couldn’t get around the fact that I had mandatory monthly expenses to pay: rent, car payment, student loans, utilities, food and credit cards. To add to the feeling of instability, there were ongoing budget reductions at my job, which meant that, on some days, I would clock in only to find that certain co-workers were gone — laid off discreetly in order to balance the budget. It was a tense time.

Shortly after the Bureau’s first birthday in July of 2012, I joined the design team at the CFPB. At that time, the team was a hardworking and dedicated unit of fewer than ten people. I didn’t know it yet, but I would spend the next two years building a robust in-house graphic design team within the agency.

Three years in, I still feel committed to our mission of transforming the financial landscape by empowering consumers with well-designed, user-centered tools and resources. Armed with impartial information, data, and an avenue for filing complaints, the American people now have a voice within the financial marketplace.

18F: What’s the biggest government-specific design challenge you’ve faced to date, and how did you address it?

MB: I think that corporate America already understands the bottom-line value of incorporating design into communication, marketing, and products. Government is playing catch-up, and that’s the biggest challenge I see. We are working hard to build relationships across the Bureau so that everyone has a positive experience working with our team and asks their colleague “Has the design team looked at that?” before we release a report, chart, or something else to the public.

NF: As a government agency, we are required by law to comply with Section 508, which dictates that federal agencies make their electronic and information technology fully accessible to all audiences, including people with disabilities. Accessibility for all Americans has always been at the core of our mission as an organization, but this year we have strived to move toward a stricter adherence to the Web Content Accessibility Guideline (WCAG) 2.0. The guidelines are extensive and there are many details to consider and work through. To add a level of complexity, the guidelines were last updated in 2008, so a lot has changed in terms of technology and the way web content is viewed. In the absence of updated guidelines, we are charged with filling in the gaps that exist and working to adhere not just to the specifications of the law, but also to the spirit of the law. In working through this challenge, we must carefully consider the diverse needs of our users. We’re definitely becoming better designers as a result.

18F: What strategies do you use to improve communication within your own design team?

MB: More than half of our design and development team members work from their homes around the country, so we value asynchronous, transparent communication. We use GitHub issue threads to iterate on design projects and build our design standards. (You can snoop on, or join, our discussions on our Design Manual repo.) We also have three cross-project design pods that meet weekly for an hour of peer critique, and then we meet as a full team each Friday to show progress on projects. Our critique technique has changed as our team has grown, and we’re always striving to find a replacement for the irreplaceable “hang it on a wall and discuss in person”-style of critique.

NF: We face a lot of communications obstacles stemming from the separation of our large team into smaller self-sustaining project teams, a substantial remote workforce, and a diversity of projects that are progressing all at once. As designers, it is our responsibility to ensure that the work we produce is consistent and clear. So, it’s especially important that we avoid working in silos and that we keep up with the work that other teams are producing.

Although we don’t all work side-by-side, we have developed a rich culture of sharing and collaboration. This has taken many forms over the years, from graphic design critiques, to brand development meetings, to asynchronous feedback using GitHub. More recently, we set up a system of cross-project critique sessions. In order to encourage cross-pollination, we mixed up the groupings so that a single member from each project team is represented. Breaking people out of their project teams and maintaining a continuous conversation about the work as it develops has improved our team culture and knocked down walls that previously existed.

18F: Finally, what piece of advice would you offer a new designer?

MB: Start working full-time with a group of designers that can help you grow and learn. You can only learn what you like and what your strengths are by working, so don’t fret over getting the perfect job!

NF: My advice? Learn the fundamentals. When I was a new designer I felt pressure to keep up with the latest trends in graphic design. I now know that effective design is all about the fundamentals and there’s nothing trendy about that. The fundamentals today — balance, composition, spacing, typography and hierarchy — are the same as they were one hundred years ago. In a world of rapidly changing technology, the fundamentals remain constant. Learn them now and they will serve you for your entire career.

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A big thanks to Mollie and Natalia for taking the time to share their stories with us. To learn more about Mollie and Natalia’s experience shaping the design team at CFPB and to hear more of their insights into the design process, tune in to the livestream of their talk, which will air on Sept. 22 at 3:30 p.m. ET. We’ll tweet the link just before the event starts, so follow @18F if you haven’t already.

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