Alumni Spotlight: John Payne

SIGD Alum John Payne

Earlier this spring, Auburn alum John Payne was named as the first Head of Design at Public Policy Lab, a New York City-based non-profit. Public Policy Lab advises government organizations on how to craft and implement public service policies in areas like housing, healthcare and social services for low-income and at-risk Americans. A graduate of the Industrial Design program in the School of Industrial and Graphic Design (SIGD), Payne has been a leader in human-centered design and design research for the last twenty years.

Payne’s relationship with Public Policy Lab began nine years ago, when he joined the organization’s board of directors and began advising its leadership on consulting practices, ethnography and design research. Now that Public Policy Lab has transitioned from a philanthropy-funded organization to a full-blown service design consultancy, Payne is a natural fit for the new Head of Design role. He leads a team of researchers, policy experts and designers with backgrounds in human-centered design who create streamlined processes of human interaction as well as print or digital outputs that direct those processes. “Our focus is on service design,” Payne explained. “Our outputs are descriptions of intangible services that constituents engage in and, in some cases, the beginnings of interfaces they engage in. We make recommendations to our agency partners and provide guidance in terms of business process design, the design of face-to-face interactions and how those interactions should unfold. We were the first human-centered design agency to do this kind of work in the U.S.”

Public Policy Lab has a wide range of clients and projects. Payne is currently working on streamlining the process that foster youth must go through when they age out of New York City’s foster care system and apply for public housing. Another local project he’s involved in is updating the application process for Section 8 housing vouchers that cover a portion of private market rent. He also leads training sessions for government agencies and other clients across the nation who want to do more effective human-centered design research to help in crafting their own policies. Payne says that from a design standpoint, he and his team are simply trying to improve products for end users, and those products just happen to be services provided by government entities. “In a nutshell you can imagine service design as akin to the kind of service you might get interacting with Verizon if you’re a customer,” he explained. “You interact with that service in a number of different ways. As a constituent, you are using public services and our work is designing the various ways you interact with the government to use those services.”

Payne’s use of Verizon as a metaphor isn’t just coincidental. Before joining Public Policy Lab, he spent the last several years as Verizon’s Head of Service Design. He led a team of user experience professionals in designing the processes of all the service interactions a customer can have with Verizon, from adding features and choosing service plans to troubleshooting and contacting customer service, while also supporting direct customer access to the digital and conversational interfaces that host those interactions. Before working for Verizon, Payne was a partner in the consulting firm Moment, which he founded in 2002. With 55 employees in NYC and Chicago, Moment worked primarily with local clients from a wide range of industries, including media companies like Disney, high end fashion brands like Tiffany & Co. and Gucci and a number of healthcare companies like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. In 2018, Payne and his colleagues could see that similarly sized firms were being acquired by larger corporations, so they began conversations with interested buyers and determined that working in house at Verizon would be the best fit for all of their employees. Once they joined Verizon, the team from Moment became the basis for the new design department, gathering all designers at the company under one umbrella organization and applying design principles to every major area of Verizon customer interactions. “It was quite different than having my own consultancy for sure,” Payne said. “Coordinating and facilitating the design process with a lot more people was a big change. And being closer to the development of things we were creating was new. I had shifted my attention from the business development aspect of consulting to evangelizing a human-centered design process to a large organization who really hadn’t thought about it. We helped them understand the larger definition of design and how to shape the entire customer experience.”

In addition to his work for Public Policy Lab, Payne is also a busy educator. He is currently an Associate Professor of Practice at the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology, where he earned a Master of Design. He has co-chaired and curated two international conferences, EPIC 2012 and Interaction 17, and is a frequent critic and lecturer at schools like Parsons School of Design, New York University, Savannah College of Art and Design and Pratt Institute.

In his new role at Public Policy Lab, Payne is focusing on how service design is changing due to our growing use of technology in almost every aspect of life. “So many services have a DIY component for the constituents to engage in the service,” he said. “Government agencies are moving away from the process of asking for opinion-based input and are shifting to human-centered design. This is a much more effective tool for creating services like the process of applying for Section 8 housing.” While the field of design has changed extensively since he graduated from Auburn, Payne says that the education he received in SIGD has stuck with him over the years. “The design process is the primary thread through my entire career,” he said. “Even though it wasn’t called the human-centered process back then, we were taught to look at a problem, see what the users are struggling with, overcome those problems and design something that looks better and works better. The process is more or less the same, it’s just very different outputs. Auburn is a great school, and it really set me up well.”