HCD at Optum

While working at Optum (United Health Group,) I was part of a medium sized team tasked with guiding the development of an app to help veterans re-acclimate to civilian life. We conducted interviews with veterans, organizers, and veterans’ family members. We compiled our findings, debated what they meant, and ultimately, provided a laundry list of features to the development team.

Only insiders were involved in the design work.

  • Designers were all employees of Optum. This manifested more technical solutions than were called for.
  • Designers were mostly male, and mostly white or eastern asian.
  • Design conversations took place in Optum’s corporate headquarters, in a locked room. Not even all employees were authorized to enter.

I think this stands out to me now that I’m not in that environment. At the time, I was happy to be interviewing people in the real world, and thought that human centered design was the best that we could do. It was more empathetic than the other work I had done at Optum, which was mainly focused on efficiency in our call centers. In hindsight, it is a shame that no impacted veterans were in the room when we were debating the features that were and were not useful. Something tells me that they would have shot down many of the ideas that us 20 somethings thought were appropriate.

The product shall be an app.

When interviewing the veterans, it became clear that they already had substantial assets for their recovery. These were often support groups hosted in their local church basements, and friends willing to be on call in a crisis. The whole time we were compiling our interview results, it was very clear that the expected output of our time would be plans for an app. With that in mind, we set to work creating features. Small groups imagined calendar helpers, gamification of therapy, enhanced chat clients, and more.

Ultimately, the one feature that did get implemented was a video series — pretty low tech. This was a bit of an about-face on the design team’s part, but a good one in my opinion. In the end, though, we shouldn’t have spent a whole week talking about apps. It was abundantly clear from the interviews that mobile apps were not a welcome approach. If we hadn’t wasted so much time trying to imagine a mobile app, we may have been able to provide something better than a (very basic) video series.

Lack of true institutional support.

Some part of me feels like the whole endeavor was akin to government hackathons “as an exercise in the State feeling good about itself.” If United Health Group really wanted to get behind veterans re-entering society, they would support the organizers that we interviewed rather than trying to commodify their insights in an app.


The fact that this design endeavor was pursued by a corporation seriously compromised it in terms of design justice. The well from which we drew our designers was seriously tainted by racial bias in hiring. The problem we were trying to solve was framed as something that must be solved with technology from the beginning, but ultimately, was not. The project was shuttered about 6 months later. This was touted as a win — we “failed fast.” At least we did no harm. I’m not entirely sure that we had to fail, though. By including the insights of our interviewees in a more meaningful way, we could have potentially helped them to make a positive difference in their comrades’ lives.

Hello from Dragana

Hello everyone!

Hi everyone, I’m a research fellow at the Berkman Center, working on developing framework for UX, cultural context, and technical feedback for open source public interest projects. 5 years ago I founded a non profit organization called Localization Lab that works on tech adoption through collaborative localization. Before starting the organization, I often encountered developers not interacting at all with the end users, sometimes over years of product development. This not only has a huge impact on the usability and security of the tool, but also on the diversity of the user base, as they are not involving people from the focused group as an integral part of the process. On the other hand, the people from these communities, who often come from developing countries, also miss out on socioeconomic opportunities that come with having some experience working on a product, design, coding, or project management. We do co-design through structured exercises with end-users, UX designers, and developers, and I’m looking forward to learning the history and different theories in the class.

So, I want to move away from the equity in access to technology to the right to participate in the technology.

I want to incorporate principles of co-design with developers we work with, because so often we see this colonial narrative in public interest tech where developers know what’s best for end users without seeking their input or cooperation. I want to offer some principles applicable to all the projects that we work on, to make them more usable and more secure. I would love to see this as a principle in international development too, where there is a similar problem in the right to participate in the design, solutions, and development of one’s own community.

Elizabeth Borneman

“Coming Together”

Hi! I’m Elizabeth . All are welcome to call me Lizzi or Elizabeth. 

I’m from Florida, I have a background/foreground in music, neurobiology, data vis, creative writing (I think), games for learning, philosophy, design.

I’m broadly interested in transformative collaboration, or the ways and sorts of things that get people to collaborate across difference and conflict, and make people genuinely want to. I think about whether we can replicate or model those factors to fit different situations where conflict resolution and compromise is difficult. Can we turn love into an energy source maybe?

One of the things I am concerned about, and related to a project I am thinking of working at for the class, is the ways that online spaces and our interactions with our personal technologies, are being used to perpetuate historical injustices across the spectrum.  Across law enforcement, hospitals, schools, etc, for things like justifying arrests and not getting loans you might need, or the chance to get something off a criminal record, or your health insurance costs getting raised.

I’m working on a project now in early stages that focuses on biased social media flagging and surveilling of kids of color from marginalized, gang and trauma-impacted communities. Broadly, trying to think of approaches to train attorneys, judges, and educators to interpret social media more fairly and holistically, especially when content is innocuous or just expressive in some non-crime related way – a lot of this requires working with kids to learn about how they use social media to express what’s going on in their communities, how they vent, connect with each other,  etc. What sorts of changes they would like to see in the system. Another goal of the project would be to help train those educators and criminal justice officials to better and more ethically identify and respond to posts that actually might signal someone getting hurt/a crime we’d like to prevent in the future. This project is growing out of my role in the Teaching Systems Lab where I work on K-12 teacher training projects with a focus on ‘equity. ’ 

I’m happy to be here. Looking forward to learning from each other. Nice to meet you all (: 

Hi from Hannah

Hi all, good to meet you last week. My name is Hannah and I’m a data visualization and mapping freelancer and organizer. In my work I support non-profits, journalists, and organizers in using data to better understand their research and tell compelling stories about it. I’ve worked in reproductive justice//abortion access, urban planning and community development, and Palestinian solidarity and anti-militarization. In my unpaid projects I organize with an anti-police and anti-surveillance collective in Boston, support a rapid response anti-doxxing crew, and organize community safety systems in my Jewish community. I live in a beautiful lil coop house and like to knit and care for my sun-starved plants.

I’m in this class to fight against the lonely freelancer life and work with some other brilliant folks in the service of movements that matter to me. Some ideas bouncing around include creating a secure intake system to level up the anti-doxxing work or designing workshops/events to support in collecting community testimony about experiences with the Boston police. The creative archival work celebrating 40 years of Wake Up the Earth also sounds interesting! I’m excited to hear what other folks are excited about and what we can create together this semester.

Hello from Rebecca

Hi all! My name is Rebecca and I am currently a Design Researcher at a biotech company. In recent years, I worked on the Make the Breast Pump Not Suck project to catalyze equity-based innovation in post-partum healthcare. In the Fall, I’ll be starting my PhD in Human-Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, where I am exciting to continue co-design projects.

I am working with a community partner in Detroit, the Black Mother’s Breastfeeding Association on a “hackathon-style” design event for Black Breastfeeding Week in August 2019. The project will focus on consulting on the agenda and workshop design as well as supporting partnerships with the local design and tech community.

Anna’s Intro

Reflecting on the nature of codesigning and the need to recognize everyone in the process — not just the people whose voices are the loudest.
  • Name: Anna Chung
  • Affiliations: 1st year master’s student @ Comparative Media Studies, research assistant @ Civic Media
  • Interests: civic engagement, participatory mapping, housing justice, gentrification, social media design
  • Skills: data visualization, visual design, UX design, 360 video, 3D printing

I’d love to develop a sustained involvement with local organizing efforts around issues of civic engagement and gentrification. In the past, I’ve done mentoring and community organizing work with the Asian American Mentoring Program. I’ve also volunteered as a developer with the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project to create a map showing the relationship between art galleries and gentrification in Los Angeles.

In the Boston area, two potential partner organizations are the Asian American Resource Workshop (focusing on civic engagement with API communities) and City Life / Vida Urbana (focusing on housing justice). I am not currently involved with either organization but know people who have worked with them.

However, I am also totally open to working with other organizations that other students may have more established relationships with. My hope is to be as helpful as possible, and I realize that building a new relationship with an organization can take a lot of time and resources. I’m looking forward to learn about codesign/design justice and to incorporate these principles into the work I do beyond this course as well.

hello from Ned!

I’m delighted to be working next to y’all in this codesign studio. 🙂 Rather than starting with a bio, I’m going to try leaping straight into the work I hope to do, tagging in my background as it comes up. (we’ll see if that works into something readable lol)

I’m intrigued by the formation of shared ideas (aka joint-cognitive design concepts) during creative group work. For example: imagine a group of people discussing something they’ve agreed to work on together: it starts out as just a name or label, but as they come together they build it up by talking about their perspectives on what it should be. Then a fascinating thing happens: someone at the table asks another person “what do you think [a particular part of the concept] looks like?” At this point the asker is referencing a shared idea, something that isn’t physically real (though it may be referenced in sketches), but that the asker can imagine, and what’s more knows the person they’re asking the question of can imagine, and further, that that person can see things in this shared reality that the asker cannot.

This kind of conversation has happened in many of the engineering, product design, and teaching teams I’ve been a part of, and it generally isn’t remarked upon. But in my experience it’s during this formation of the shared idea where many of the voices, perspectives, and concerns that are marginalized or less powerful are prevented from shaping the direction of a project. The shared idea, especially as anchored in sketches, CAD, spreadsheets, can serve as a secret language, excluding those who were not given the chance to build bridges from their experience to the shared idea from having a hand in the project’s vision and organization of work. For me, a powerful realization of this came while teaching in Ghana, where when we presented hands-on activities students held back on telling relations between chemistry (which they’d learned in English) and everyday life (in a city that spoke Fanti) until the classroom became a comfortable place for them to switch between the two languages.

My hope for this class is to focus on co-creating those moments and representations of shared ideas in ways that build power at and amplify voices along the margin of who we consider “designers”. This is currently my research for a Mechanical Engineering PhD, but it started when I was working in the engineering industry: I wanted the machinists to be critiquing the modelers’ concepts just as much as the modelers were currently critiquing the machinists’. However, the aerospace research engineering that I started with began to feel a bit too privileged to hold some of my hopes for co-design. As my expertise is in interviewing practitioners about the shared ideas of their work (which are by their nature difficult to put into words) my hope is to work with a community of practitioners to build power and knowledge such that their shared ideas are more listened to and given more weight in the rooms they bring them to.

In particular, I’d love to work with a local union and unionized workers. I have a few connections to labor organizers in this area, and am beginning to reach out, but am also definitely feeling my inexperience in co-design as I try to understand how to do so and what the opportunities might be! From my current perspective, the way organizers reflect on, share, and build their practices seem like a very interesting set of shared ideas to work with. I’m quite open though to other suggestions of communities and partners. 😀

Announcing the Spring 2019 Co-Design Studio: ‘Hacking Hackathons!’

DiscoTech Flyer from the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition

DiscoTech Flyer from the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition

Hello co-designers! I’m pleased to announce that in the Spring of 2019, the co-design studio will be organized as an advanced practicum around the theme of “hacking hackathons,” with a goal of developing shared knowledge and best practices for organizing radically inclusive design events. Projects may be individual or team-based.

General description: The Civic Media Co-design Studio is a service-learning, project-based studio course in collaborative design of civic media. Students partner with community-based organizations to create civic media projects grounded in real-world community needs. The course covers co-design theory and practice, including methods for community participation in iterative stages of project ideation, design, prototyping, testing, launch, and stewardship.

Listing in the MIT Course Catalog: http://student.mit.edu/catalog/mCMSa.html#CMS.862

If you’re interested in joining us, please fill out this short form: http://bit.ly/codesign2019-interest.

Connecting STEM to the CULTURE


It’s no secret that there is little to no representation of black and brown individuals in the technology sector. Current curriculums and programs attempting to address this deficiency often seek to show students opportunities or directly try to convince them to pursue STEM careers. One thing these programs have in common is that they often fail to relate to the students.

Fascinate, Inc. is an organization with a mission to bring cutting-edge technology to underrepresented students nationwide and facilitate pathways into STEM-based careers. Cultural relevancy is their strategy of choice in getting students excited about STEM. The project we chose to focus on relates to the Dope Tech Showcase, a technology showcase held in a local makerspace with students and volunteers of color. Our goal is to work collaboratively in determining a process that will make the Dope Tech Showcase cohesive and replicable over an extended period of time. The result would be a showcase guide that the event organizer and/or volunteers could use to smoothly operate their own Dope Tech Showcase.

For more information, please refer to our case study and presentation.

Pushing Against Inequality in Boston with Social Media

Within Massachusetts, inequality is rampant. A symptom of and contributor to that inequality is the prohibitive cost of child care which further perpetuates poor families struggling to both raise children and bring in a livable income. Furthermore, structural barriers prevent young women and mothers in poverty especially those of color, to come out of poverty. Project Hope works to alleviate these systemic challenges by providing programs that work with women to overcome these barriers. In order to best assist Project Hope in their mission, we devised a social media campaign to bring in more caregivers, students, families, and participants into their programs.

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Case Study