A civic-first mentality combined with philomath—a term to describe a lover of learning—compels User Experience (UX) Design program graduate Lacy Kelly Ramos to aspire to new heights.
The love for learning—specifically design—started during her childhood, where Lacy would pour over her drawing and other art adventures.
The spark to work in civic tech came in 2017 while working in a visual design and marketing communications role at North Carolina–based The Hunt Institute, an independent, educational policy nonprofit. She began following design-centric civic-tech organizations such as Code for America and Civilia.
“In the summer of 2021,” Lacy recalls, “I moved to the Washington, D.C., area and knew that I wanted my next professional role to be a meaningful one. The D.C. area is rife with nonprofits and organizations focused on socially impactful work, and as I began researching local agencies, I stumbled upon the United States Digital Service (USDS) and 18F. I got super-excited. I signed up for a USDS newsletter and began following them on social media, which is how I learned about the U.S. Digital Corps (USDC). What really drew me initially to USDC was how the program was modeled after the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) program and that it provided an opportunity to work within a federal agency and to grow and challenge myself in areas of human-centered design.
“I was blown away by the work these programs were doing and the caliber of individuals taking part in the PIF program. When I applied, I honestly felt like it was a long shot, but thought, ‘I want to be a part of that!’ Sitting in on the initial webinars for USDC, it was exciting to learn about the eagerness of agencies to have Fellows come aboard to own, manage and improve upon their technologies. For me, the fellowship felt like not only a pathway into a new landscape of interesting challenges, but also a rare opportunity to learn and grow significantly.”
But a long shot it did not turn out to be. Our 2022 graduate landed one of only 38 Fellows selected from a competitive pool of more than 1,000 applicants from 19 states and territories and 37 academic institutions.
“I’m incredibly humbled,” Lacy says. “I was eager for the opportunity and happily surprised when I was selected because of how many applicants there were and how much talent exists in large applicant pools like this. I’ve since experienced how diverse our cohort is and how celebrated that is by our Fellowship. The diversity in background, experience and skill set greatly enriches the experience and better reflects the American public we serve. For me, this understanding, along with the reward of being selected, is a solid reminder to challenge myself as much as I can during the two-year appointment. I hope by challenging myself to do more and improve my own work, I can give back and make an impact in some capacity.
“Had I not selected your UX program, I don’t believe I would have been prepared for my role in this fellowship.”
“I am honored to support the U.S. Digital Corps in my role as Federal Chief Information Officer. Creating new ways to bring technology talent into the Federal Government is crucial to our efforts to protect, serve and inspire the American people in today’s digital age."
—Clare Martorana, Federal Chief Information Office at The White House
Let’s talk about that role. I understand you’re working in the U.S. Census Bureau on improving access to census data.
As a USDC Fellow in the design track, I’m placed within the Center for Enterprise Dissemination Services and Consumer Innovation (CEDSCI) at the U.S. Census Bureau.
CEDSCI’s focus is to centralize and standardize all the data and metadata that the Census Bureau collects each year and to make it available to the public via dissemination tools such as data.census.gov. I’d say the focus of my role is to help improve users' experiences across the dissemination tools that I’ll be working on and supporting the development of new features for those tools. Despite being three months in, I’ve had the privilege to support product visioning, analyzing user research and owning the development of a new feature.
There’s always concern when working with and presenting data that there are perhaps subconscious opportunities to introduce bias or other elements that can skew the meaning of the data. As a UX professional, how are you trying to mitigate that?
While my current role at Census doesn’t actively “touch” or work with data, the tools that I help support do function as the delivery system of Census data to the American public. This is incredibly important to keep in mind as I work because Census data helps inform policy that affects all of us. Government data can help spur innovation and improve the quality of services for the American people through policy.
So as a UX professional, designing by using best practices for an open, unbiased, plain-language system of tools will greatly mitigate the potential for skewed data. The Census Bureau also upholds these pillars throughout their process of data collection and dissemination. The xD team, housed at Census, is one such group that actively works on solutions for this concern.
My goal was to be able to begin working professionally as a UX designer immediately following my program completion and I do feel the program was successful in providing that for me.
What initially drew you to a career in graphic design and UX?
In my undergrad at Indiana University Bloomington, I was intrigued enough to enroll in a graphic design course. From the first day, I knew I had found “the thing.” While the bulk of graphic design work is visual, you also need to be inquisitive about your subject matter, such as by asking of the product that you are designing, “What does it do?” “Who is it for?” “Why is it needed?” “How can it be better?”
Asking questions and learning really is at the core of design. It’s problem-solving. And that is definitely what also drew me to UX after years as a graphic designer. UX also begins with research and is founded on an iterative process to develop something useful and meaningful for users. In this way, design also allows me to feel like I get to help people, which is important to me.
So you were looking for a career-advancement into UX, and that’s where our certificate comes in.
I spent a few months looking into different programs that were available remotely and from an accredited institution. I wanted a program that felt solid, lasting and competitive with graduate programs in UX, but with a shorter time commitment and lower cost.
I ultimately chose your UX certificate because it really ticked all of the boxes for me. The curriculum is largely practice-based (instead of theory) and there are exceptional instructors at the helm of that curriculum. Ultimately, I wanted to walk away with a solid grasp of the UX practice from concept to release and continued iteration. My goal was to be able to begin working professionally as a UX designer immediately following my program completion and I do feel the program was successful in providing that for me.
A takeaway from the certificate program that I did not expect to learn or to be so valuable is how to be an active listener, think about a problem deeper than the surface level and then ask those probing questions.
You fast-tracked your learning by studying full time and completely online. How was that experience?
I had a wonderful experience. I completed the certificate in nine months, which meant I was often taking two or three classes at a time. This definitely required me to practice good time management and keep myself very organized.
At first, I felt a little out of practice, having been out of an academic setting for so long. What aided me though was how well planned the curriculum was for each course. The Canvas platform made it easy to stay on top of assignments, tasks and deadlines. My instructors were really top-notch: all practicing professionals, down to earth, easy to converse with, and many of them at FAANG [big tech or big five] companies. My peers in every class were dedicated, respectful and all wonderfully talented. I learned much from my peers and made friends along the way.
Half of my online courses were synchronous, half asynchronous, and I had a seamless experience with both formats. The curriculum was well-organized for each course, assignments were made clear and all instructors offered office hours, which I highly recommend you attend. I definitely preferred live, synchronous classes so that I could interact more readily with my peers and instructor. Several courses incorporated group work, which turned out to be a highlight of my experience. The only downside was that I was living on the East Coast and classes took place on Pacific time, so there were many late nights!
Despite being three months in, I’ve had the privilege to support product visioning, analyzing user research and owning the development of a new feature.
And your hard work paid off with a respected certificate and a Fellow opportunity. How are you employing lessons learned in our certificate to this exciting role?
A takeaway from the certificate program that I did not expect to learn or to be so valuable is how to be an active listener, think about a problem deeper than the surface level and then ask those probing questions. This skill is useful throughout the design process and it’s proven to be incredibly helpful onboarding into government, which is an entirely new professional experience for me. It’s also been helpful within my agency placement. Being “fresh eyes” to the organization, I’ve been encouraged to offer my feedback. In terms of methodology, I’m currently employing affinity diagramming, discovery research, wireframing and user interface (UI) design.
What does earning our certificate and the opportunity with the U.S. Census Bureau mean to you personally and professionally?
I’m not sure that I can fully answer how impactful my UX professional program experience and my fellowship will be for me yet. I say this because I know its impact will be far-reaching into my future, both professionally and personally.
What I can answer honestly is that, had I not selected this particular certificate program, I don’t believe I would have been prepared for my role in this fellowship. My learning in the UX program challenged me to think in new ways and then apply that thinking. So far, my fellowship has followed suit and is already stretching me to be more than I previously considered I was capable of.
I really look forward to what lies ahead.