On October 1, 2013 millions of people go online, anxious to apply for insurance via the federal government’s new healthcare exchange. Near midnight of December 25th that same year, Sha Hwang (B.A. Arch. ’07) receives a call, tapping him to be part of President Obama’s “tech surge”—the hand-picked team tasked to fix the disastrous Healthcare.gov website.
Now, Hwang, along with many of his team from Healthcare.gov, are taking what they’ve learned to form Nava, a company dedicated to helping other government agencies radically improve their digital services. “We realized that the problems faced by Healthcare.gov were not unique to that site. The logic that guides people through things like applications and claims processing is the same across numerous government services,” says Hwang. “Our mission is to help agencies develop things from the end-user perspective so they can deliver better outcomes for people.”
Mapping Hwang’s path from architecture student to government services design advocate would create an interesting visual—perhaps one that another of his startups, Meshu, could fashion into a nice piece of jewelry. A fan of computers since childhood, Hwang soon learned that it wasn’t computers that he loved, but what he could make with them. “Arriving at CED was inspiring—the work that Professor of Architecture Lisa Iwamoto and others were doing around mapping and visualization to form spatial arguments for designs was especially influential,” explained Hwang.
One thing you quickly notice when talking with Hwang is that he’s driven by something much more than just the desire to make visual sense out of complex data sets. He talks about agency, impact, usefulness, responsibility; about making experiences better for people.
After stints at IwamotoScott, MESH, and Stamen, Hwang cofounded the YCombinator-backed tech startup Movity in June of 2010. Here he developed data visualizations in a space that was personally useful for individuals wanting to know what their new neighborhood was really like. Movity was acquired by Trulia at the end of 2010.
Commenting on the challenges of founding a tech startup, Hwang explains, “It’s not unlike the role of an architect in the building industry—you have varying responsibilities and must navigate uncertainty and vagueness. And you have to work on everything.”
Stepping away from the pressures of the tech startup fundraising ecosystem, Hwang launched Meshu and another startup, Gifpop, with the aim to create products as provocations that touch people in personal ways. Meshu maps travels to create bespoke jewelry while Gifpop turns digital artists’ works into physical artifacts. Hwang calls the companies “the thinnest possible business wrapper around an art project.”
With Nava the goals may be greater—helping the millions of people who must interact with government services—but the underpinning is consistent: a desire to use design to better people’s experience. And Hwang doesn’t underestimate his responsibility. “People can’t choose not to interact with these systems. This changes the tenor of the work. If a site doesn’t work for everyone, there is no alternative for them. It’s humbling to work with people who understand this kind of responsibility.”
Much of what Hwang learned while at CED still grounds his current work. “So much of this past 18 months has been about building parts of the system from scratch. A lot of the skills we were taught at CED—the rigor you need to design systems, to create a visual vocabulary—were ways of managing complexity.”
Hwang also acknowledges the impact of the college’s culture. “Being surrounded by people who really took on the role of design with their whole being was life changing. They taught me that I had agency—this still influences how I work now.”
Hwang is also a member of 112 Wurster Club which enables CED young alumni to maintain a connection to Wurster Hall and invest in the next generation of CED graduates through a modest gift to the CED Fund. Asked about his reasons to participate, he explains that it feels odd not to support the place you came from. “It’s a fallacy that your success is only correlated to your skills. Success is tied to networks and support and circumstance. It’s my responsibility as someone who has been given so much to recognize that.”