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Building a better government design team

Image: Mollie Bates and Natalia Fitzgerald give a talk at 18F about the design team at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Building a high-performing design team is tough under the best of circumstances. Add in governmental regulations, a distributed workforce, and rapid growth of the parent organization, and the process is even tougher — a difficulty Mollie Bates and Natalia Fitzgerald are very familiar with.

Bates and Fitzgerald helped build the design team at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), whose goal is to help consumers reclaim control over their financial well-being by providing educational materials, improving the accessibility of financial data, collecting and responding to consumer complaints, and enforcing regulations.

“It didn’t happen overnight,” Bates said of the team’s growth, and the process definitely presented challenges. By staying flexible and creative, CFPB has grown a team of more than 70 designers and developers (of roughly 1,600 total employees). Having a team of this size allows CFPB to do more in-house design and development than most federal agencies.

How the team grew was the subject of a presentation Bates and Fitzgerald gave at 18F on Tuesday, Sept. 22. Starting with an overview of the CFPB’s seven core functions and a brief history of the independent bureau within the Federal Reserve System, the two shifted to a discussion of the four tactics employed to bring together the team that exists today.

How did the team get to where it is today?

Build a diverse team of creatives

Assembling a group of driven, hardworking, creative folks seems the obvious first step in creating a design team, but there’s more to it than that. Early on, CFPB’s design team featured predominantly generalists, and gradually grew to include more specialists. As the team grew, Bates and Fitzgerald made careful observations on the types of people who flourished in the CFPB environment.

The most successful CFPB designers are those who are “pragmatic, collaborative, team-driven, empathetic, and diplomatic (in other words, really patient and flexible),” Bates said. She added, “Of course, everyone here is really driven by our mission.”

Embrace and cultivate team culture

The CFPB design team is both distributed and comprised of smaller project teams — two factors that could lead to siloed work. To help designers break out of their bubbles and stay as open and collaborative as possible, the team promotes the following four values:

  • Iteration — Agile doesn’t always cater to designers, but the team has found a way to align the design team’s work with that of the developers and UX designers.

  • Communication — The team uses various tools to facilitate remote hangouts and chats, and holds weekly small-group critique sessions to share feedback.

  • Collaboration — To nurture the bonds among team members, the whole team gathers a few times a year to work together in person.

  • Transparency — The folks at CFPB promote transparency by designing and developing in the open whenever they can. Leadership embraces transparency by being open with meeting notes and organizational information.

Establish core standards

Establishing design standards helps your users more quickly familiarize themselves with your brand (and its unique internal logic), but it also helps your team members. Early on, the design team acknowledged that developing and crystallizing CFPB’s brand standards would improve designers’ efficiency.

“There’s no need to reinvent the wheel with each new project,” Fitzgerald explained. Templates enable designers to work more efficiently and focus on what really matters: doing mission-oriented work.

Expand and maximize your reach

Finally, designers at CFPB work to expand and maximize their organization’s reach. How does this play out on a practical level? At CFPB, it involves creating opportunities for new work, working well with design partners and colleagues, and designing for all users.

CFPB encourages designers to take on small projects, which could turn into something much larger, and to serve as stewards of good design. “We have the opportunity to serve as a resource of design expertise,” Fitzgerald said, “and to practice design diplomacy in each project.”

Perhaps the most notable way the team maximizes its reach is by creating products that serve as broad an audience as possible. CFPB has an in-house 508 accessibility expert, and the team actively seeks ways to make its products even more accessible. They write using plain language (and provide content in multiple languages), and do extensive testing to ensure products’ functionality.

Learn more

You can view the entirety of Bates and Fitzgerald’s talk right here. To see some of the speakers’ principles in action, head over to the CFPB website and explore their Design Manual and Open Tech sites. And finally, if you have feedback for the CFPB, please share it via their GitHub repos — your contributions help the CFPB create more useful products.

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