“Wait, what is it that you do?”

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Sometimes, I feel really bad for my parents. As first generation immigrants from Vietnam, the spectrum of professions they’re familiar with goes something like: doctor, lawyer, dentist, and maybe pharmacist. Unfortunately for them, I’ve never been interested in any of those professions, due to a squeamish fear of blood and general disregard of authority.

My somewhat schizophrenic career trajectory has spanned from being a cognitive neuroscience researcher to a social justice policy wonk, and now a user experience and service designer. I’ve had enough trouble explaining what I do to my peers in English. I wouldn’t even know how to start in my broken Vietnamese (of which sounds great until I try to say anything above the vocabulary of a 5-year old).

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve been trying to figure out how I can be impactful in the world. After two semi-quarter-life crises (or essential "life pivots", if you want to be euphemistic about it), I’ve now landed at an intersection of work that combines the creative outside-the-box thinking and visual communication that I crave, with an intentional focus on improving the lives of people that speaks to my life purpose.

When I say I do design work, most people ask, “fashion or graphic”? One time, a new acquaintance said, “Oh, like design thinking?” and nearly blew my socks off. I was SO happy that he was familiar with the concept and that I didn’t have to launch into my vague spiel about it. As I’ve continued to do this work, I’m meeting more and more people who are already familiar with the concept and it still gives me a little thrill each time. These are the folks I want to be in community with.

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For readers who are not familiar with design thinking, here’s a great article that introduced me to the concept. “Design Thinking” is really just a methodology and approach to problem solving and innovation. It’s what can be done with it that excites me. Human-centered design, and service design in particular, uses aspects of design thinking to look at the whole system of an experience, and identifies how to improve it for the people it impacts. This may be the experience of banking, of the healthcare system, of aging, of obtaining clean water in a rural area, or of living with a neurodegenerative disease like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.

This type of design views the users/patients/people as the experts. The designer’s job then is to facilitate and tap into those lived experiences for the creation of better interactions. There are principles of rapid prototyping and user testing that makes a lot of sense to me – an approach that doesn’t just rely on brilliance, but diligence and intentionality.

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Much of this is in theory and I am so impatient to experience all the imperfections of it in practice and learn from that. This year with Experience Institute, alongside my amazing classmates who are similarly discovering their paths, I’ll be given the opportunity to do so at amazing organizations.

As I myself become more fluent in the vernacular and practice of this work, I hope I will be able to better explain to my family and friends in turn just what it is that I’m doing. That day can’t come soon enough--so, let the adventure begin!

Lan Nguyen

Lan comes to human-centered design by way of cognitive neuroscience research and six years of nonprofit consulting experience. Whether as a researcher, community organizer, or outreach and engagement manager, she enjoys connecting with people to learn about their needs and motivations. What’s more, she thrives in breaking down complex systems into manageable chunks and focusing on how to improve the experience of the people most affected by those structures. Leveraging her skills, she seeks to create positive social impact and give voice to the underrepresented through human-centered design.

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