This is a slightly revised version of my statement of purpose, which I used to apply to several graduate programs in urban planning. It aims to provide clarity on why I am pursuing this new career as well as defines the foundation for future writings going forward.
At first glance, the disciplines of urban planning and software development appear to share little in common. Software is generally predictable and malleable at low cost. Contrast this with the often-unpredictable nature of stakeholders in planning, or the relative rigidity of most projects within a built environment.
However, I see common ground between urban planning and software where the two fields can intersect and learn from each other – it lies in user experience design. People gravitate towards software products that address their needs in an elegant way, much like how people gravitate towards neighborhoods that are designed for how they want to live. Both software and planning projects that fail to deliver a great end-to-end user experience will drive people away over time – and in the case of poor planning, unsustainable or inequitable design can even destroy whole communities.
I’ve worked in software for over 10 years and it is with this mindset that I am now exploring urban planning as a second career, ideally with a Master of Urban Planning degree as a launchpad. I am looking to change careers, but not to change my fundamental drive for delivering the best user experiences for as many people as possible. I am also eager to apply design techniques from my experience in software to help meet some of the planning equity challenges of our time.
My passion for user experience design was apparent even during my undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley. It led me to engage in research projects at the Berkeley Institute of Design and inspired me to pursue an additional master’s degree in Human-Computer Interaction. It is also why I chose to become a product manager – a role that enabled me to be closer to the real people who would use my products.
While I worked as a product manager, I also cultivated my longtime interest in urban planning. I subscribed to planning-related publications and joined local non-profit organizations (e.g. SPUR, SF Transit Riders) to build knowledge in the field. Most recently, I’ve volunteered with Seamless Bay Area, working to advance governance changes to create a more holistic public transport system in the region. Listening to everyday transit users describe their journeys, identifying their pain points, and designing a seamless transportation vision for them is enormously fulfilling – and I’m eager to do similar hands-on work in community-based initiatives as part of a potential capstone project.
These activities were mostly a hobby until this year, when a combination of factors drove me to take my interest to the next level and chart this new career path. First, I have recognized that economic and social inequality is on the rise in cities, especially here in the United States. Second, I have not seen many companies in the software industry able to alleviate these kinds of problems – sadly, they occasionally exacerbate them via unforeseen negative externalities affecting housing or transportation. Finally, I have seen that planning has the potential to make profound impacts on equity – creating more affordable housing, connecting more people to economic opportunity, etc.
These are playing out in extremely vivid fashion with the current COVID-19 health crisis. People without the luxury of working from home are suffering the most, technology companies are limited in what they can do to help, and public transit systems are acting as a lifeline for essential workers who have no other options. Watching this unfold has only reinforced my desire to enter the planning field.
As we rebuild, I believe some best practices from user experience design in software can help accelerate more equitable outcomes in the future of planning. For example, contextual inquiry can help planners deeply understand the needs of an audience – especially valuable for a captive one as many vulnerable communities may be. This would include conducting interviews to learn about the day in the life of a citizen, but also shadowing them in real life (e.g. on a commute) to get the first-hand experience. This deep level of engagement typically uncovers more pain points and latent needs than traditional methods such as surveys.
Participatory design is another technique that can improve outcomes. Inviting a sample of people from the community to manipulate a design hands-on would likely result in novel ideas or catch flaws that outside designers may overlook. For these sessions to be successful, it would be critical to ensure balanced representation – including diversity in age, mobility, socioeconomic status, etc. In this way, the resulting design would inherently become more equitable, robust, and garner broader buy-in from the community.
Finally, regular iterative user testing is a staple of design for continuous improvement. The new class of “quick build” and tactical urbanism projects are a good start, but the key to this technique is planning for multiple (ideally infinite) iterations with intentionally small modifications at each turn. The perpetual cycle of deployment, testing, feedback gathering, and analysis gives more community members openings to suggest improvements and allows them to see results in shorter timeframes.
The opportunity to try some of these design techniques and enhance planning’s ability to create more equitable societies would be profoundly fulfilling. I look forward to exploring this common ground between planning and software further as I begin this career in building the next generation of user experiences in cities.