Service Designer, Charlye Tran, wasn’t always a public-interest technologist, but her work always had a goal of delivering positive outcomes to people.

Chris Cairns: Tell me about your path to Skylight.

Charlye Tran: I started my career as a prosthetist/orthotist and later brought prosthetic services to underserved areas around the globe. I founded a non-profit that helped improve medical services for amputees in partnership with local governments, hospitals, and NGOs. Through this work, I realized that collaboration between government and non-government organizations, combined with creative problem-solving techniques (concepts I now understand as service design and user-centered design), was pivotal to addressing seemingly impossible challenges.

Chris Cairns: How did you find out about Skylight?

Charlye Tran: Later in my career, after I’d been working in tech for several years as a software and data engineer, I decided that I needed to get back to making a tangible difference with my work. I happened upon Skylight’s website and was immediately drawn in by the company’s values, people, and past work. I felt that it would be a mutually great fit!

Chris Cairns: Why did you decide to join?

Charlye Tran: My first conversation at Skylight was with you! You spoke with such passion about the work Skylight was undertaking and about the potential impact I could have working there that I was immediately sold!

Chris Cairns: What have you worked on so far?

Charlye Tran: I’m currently leveraging service design to assist the U.S. Air Force Weather Services Program Office (WxPO) as they migrate a number of services to the cloud. The work is challenging and daunting but extremely rewarding, as a successful result will increase the resiliency and usability of weather data that comes from the WxPO, while also improving the stability of applications that are built on this information.

Applying a service design lens to this project is crucial since there are so many interconnected layers of stakeholders with differing needs and goals, as well as a vast number of end users who rely on WxPO weather data for mission-critical tasks.

Chris Cairns: What do you see yourself accomplishing in the next six months?

Charlye Tran: Over the course of the next six months, I imagine the work with the WxPO will transition to further prototyping and testing of our solutions to address some of their biggest challenges with moving the cloud migration efforts forward.

Separately, we’ve been working with faculty at the UC San Diego Design Lab on developing a curriculum to help teach service design to both students and Air Force service members. We’ll also be finalizing service design as a service within the BESPIN Design Lab and working in partnership with them as they take on their first clients.

Chris Cairns: What’s it like working with public-sector clients?

Charlye Tran: It’s both interesting and challenging. Service design, although not an entirely new discipline (and often called by many different names), has helped the design community examine problem solving from a more holistic standpoint. Our clients have been very receptive to the results that’ve come from examining the problem space from both the frontstage and backstage points of view.

By continuously working in tandem with clients and bringing them along in the journey, we learn from one another. Clients have the most insight into what their challenges are and should be treated as thought partners. We, as the practitioners and facilitators of the design process, are responsible for laying the framework where innovation and creativity can happen.

This kind of safe space for creative problem solving may not always be readily available in the public sector. In many government agencies, teams are siloed, so it’s not always easy to make broad connections across departments. There can be some resistance to change, as you’d see in any large organization. However, once a team within an agency has shown a willingness to do things differently and this process has yielded positive results, it catches on and others in the agency are more willing to adopt a new way of problem solving.

Chris Cairns: Why is this work important to you?

Charlye Tran: I’ve always wanted my work to help make a positive, lasting impact on people’s lives — whether that meant fitting a prosthetic leg for someone that allowed them to regain their independence or creating an app that helps airmen safely and efficiently maintain aircrafts. Traditional solutions-oriented problem solving that doesn’t holistically evaluate user challenges has led to a lot of redundancy and waste, while also leaving gaping holes in problems that need to be addressed.

Although user-centered design has moved us in the right direction by focusing on users’ needs, in the civic tech space we also need to examine other challenges that users face like language barriers, the digital divide, or legacy systems that can’t handle spikes in traffic. All of these challenges can make interacting with the government difficult, and we need to ensure everyone benefits from the services that the government provides.

Our solutions may not even directly affect the users and their behaviors, but because we’re looking at the problem space holistically, we’re more likely to identify the root cause and come up with more sustainable and impactful solutions.

I feel like I’ve come full circle. Starting my professional career in the non-profit rehabilitation space allowed me to work directly with a set number of people. However, I feel like I’ve been given an opportunity to make a much larger impact by working in partnership with government agencies whose missions affect countless aspects of their constituents’ lives.

Chris Cairns: Charlye, thanks so much for being part of the team, we really appreciate your contributions. If you’re interested in learning more from Charlye or others about Skylight, we’d love to hear from you.