Tent Talks Featuring Sheetal T. Patel: Customer-focused Intelligence: Serving Policymakers with Better UX Design

Tent Talks Featuring: Sheetal T. Patel
Sheetal T. Patel
Assistant Director - Transnational and Technology Mission Center
Central Intelligence Agency
Sheetal T. Patel was named the Assistant Director of the CIA for the Transnational and Technology Mission Center in January 2022. Prior to that position, Sheetal T. Patel was the Assistant Director of the CIA for Counterintelligence in 2019. Ms. Patel served as Deputy Chief of Station and Chief of Analysis in South Asia.

Join us for a riveting session with Sheetal T. Patel, Assistant Director of the CIA for the Transnational and Technology Mission Center, as we explore the intersection of User Experience (UX) design and intelligence work. With an illustrious career spanning various high-profile roles within the CIA, including Counterintelligence and analysis leadership positions in South Asia, Ms. Patel brings a wealth of knowledge on the criticality of integrating human-centered design (HCD) into intelligence operations. This session promises to uncover how the principles of UX and HCD can revolutionize the way intelligence agencies serve policymakers, enhancing both the efficacy and accessibility of complex intelligence data.

As technology continues to evolve at a breakneck pace, so does the landscape of national security and intelligence. This talk will delve into the transformative potential of UX/HCD in intelligence gathering and analysis, discussing both the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. Whether you’re a UX professional keen on contributing to national security or simply fascinated by the confluence of design and intelligence, Sheetal T. Patel’s insights will offer a unique perspective on serving policymakers with better UX design. Don’t miss this opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of how customer-focused intelligence can shape the future of national security.

Session Notes

Session Overview

In this insightful Tent Talks session, Sheetal T. Patel, Assistant Director of the CIA for the Transnational and Technology Mission Center, discusses the integration of User Experience (UX) and Human-Centered Design (HCD) within the realm of intelligence. Patel elucidates how these design principles enhance the efficiency and accessibility of intelligence data for policymakers. The conversation spans the evolution of technology within the CIA, the challenges of applying UX and HCD in intelligence work, and the opportunities these practices present for transforming intelligence gathering and analysis.

Background on the CIA and Patel’s Role

  • The CIA’s core missions include foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, all-source analysis, and covert action.
  • The agency is organized into directorates and mission centers, integrating different functions for regional or functional focus.
  • Patel’s Transnational and Technology Mission Center (T2MC) synchronizes with the private sector and addresses global strategic technology issues.

User Experience in the Intelligence Cycle

  • UX plays a critical role in presenting intelligence to policymakers in a digestible and usable format.
  • Key elements of effective intelligence presentation include:
    • Bottom-line upfront: presenting the most crucial information first.
    • Conciseness: limiting reports to one or two pages.
    • Structured storytelling: ensuring a clear narrative with a story arc and relevance to national security.
    • Visualization: using maps, charts, and graphics to aid memory retention.
    • Accessible formatting: maintaining white space and larger fonts to enhance readability.

Evolution of Technology in the CIA

  • Technological advancements have significantly impacted intelligence operations, with ubiquitous technical surveillance becoming a norm.
  • The PRC’s rise as a tech competitor and the shift of innovation from government to the private sector and academia have influenced CIA’s approach.
  • Collaboration with private sector and academic entities is increasingly critical for staying abreast of technological developments.

Challenges in Applying UX and HCD in Intelligence

  • Predominantly paper-based dissemination requires maintaining effective traditional methods while exploring interactive products.
  • Policymakers’ varying levels of expertise necessitate adaptable presentation formats, balancing detailed technical information with simplicity.

Opportunities for Transforming Intelligence Gathering and Analysis

  • Tailoring information to user needs is crucial, distinguishing between detailed technical explanations and concise summaries.
  • Understanding what level of detail is necessary for users to grasp the significance of intelligence findings.

Advice for UX and HCD Professionals Interested in National Security

  • The CIA seeks a broad range of expertise, welcoming applications from individuals with diverse backgrounds.
  • Opportunities for contributing to national security extend beyond employment, with the agency open to external insights on technological trends.

Notable Quotes

  • “Your bottom line is up front. Your first sentence of your paragraphs, your first sentence of your briefing is going to tell a policymaker literally what the bottom line is.”
  • “Visualization comes in, maps, charts, graphics, however it is possible to get that information in a format that is not only quickly digested, but remembered.”
  • “Since World War II, a lot of the tech innovation was happening in government. And what has happened in the last decade, 15, 20 years, I think, there has been a shift.”
  • “You don’t want to lose the audience before the message has been downloaded.”

Reference Materials

  • CIA’s official website: CIA.gov

Session Transcript

[00:00:39] Chicago Camps:  Could you share some background on the CIA and your role as Assistant Director for the Transnational and Technology Mission Center?

[00:00:46] Sheetal Patel: For those that are not familiar with CIA a little bit, we have four core missions. And it’s Foreign Intelligence, which is literally the collection of information that can be done via collection from humans.

We are predominantly HUMINT, so getting from human sources, plans, and intentions. For Counterintelligence, what it stands for, protecting our people, facilities, maintaining our ability to do operations. All Source Analysis, taking all the different intel models, so what we would call signals intelligence, human intelligence. And then the final one is covert action, which is done at the direction of the president.

All those mission areas, the way we are organized is there are directorates, which I like to call like the services, right? There’s the Directorate of Analysis where the all source analysis come from. Directorate of Operations, the name stands for itself.

Directorate of Support, they can build anything, take anything, get us anywhere we need to go. Directorate of science and technology, which if James Bond is like the Q of James Bond, the scientist. And then we have Digital Innovation, which is exactly what it stands for, and in there are cyber and open source.

Then, on the flip side, we have what we call mission centers, and so those are integrated, all five of those directorates are integrated into mission centers, so they can be regional. Or you can be functional.

I run the mission center that has the technology space, the analysis and collection of technology, as well as transnational topics that range from energy to humanitarian issues to sanctions, things like that.

 That is the mission center I run. Our job in the Transnational and Technology Mission Center, which we actually call T2MC because it is such a mouthful, is literally, to better synchronize with the private sector, really get a handle on technology as an intelligence topic. What is technology in and of itself?

How are our adversaries doing in that technology space? And it is not tied to what is the weapons system doing or how are we doing it this way? So it’s a little different, but it’s really changing how the agency is going to approach the technology global strategic competition.

[00:03:16] Chicago Camps: With your deep experience in various roles within the CIA, where do you see user experience and human centered design principles playing a role in the intelligence cycle?

[00:03:26] Sheetal Patel: When I just talked about the different functions, like All Source Analysis is one of those big functions. How CIA presents intelligence to policymakers is where I think this user experience really plays a critical role. As we collect and analyze, we have to present it to policymakers so that they can make policy decisions.

And the business model is we get direction from policy about what the key priorities are, right? There’s a national security strategy that gets published every year. From that, we make our plans on what are the needs, what do we need to look at to collect in the foreign intelligence sphere, and then we process and assess that rely, based on reliability and quality.

And then the analysts use that intel along with all the other intel formats to piece judgments together that are written and oral. So you can do it in briefings or you can write it down and then it’s disseminated to policy makers and intelligence community partners. If you go back to, like, user experience, that is the biggest user experience, right?

If you define policy makers as a user, then how we produce and analyze and dissem that information is the key on making sure that the user gets the information in a format that is digestible and something that is usable. So how do we do this? This is going to run anti to anybody who’s in academia or anything I learned in college.

But your bottom line is up front. Your first sentence of your paragraphs, your first sentence of your briefing is going to tell a policymaker literally what the bottom line is. Everything else will flow from that.

The second one is being concise. Unlike the norm for academic papers or things that I wrote in college, these are one to two pages, sometimes just several sentences.

The third one is structure. You have to tell a story when you’re writing an intelligence product. You are telling a story to the policymakers. You have to make sure you know where the story arc is and you have to make sure to say what and so what. Now, what happened? And why does it matter to national security?

And then visualization comes in, maps, charts, graphics, however it is possible to get that information in a format that is not only quickly digested, but remembered. It is amazing how years later, a policymaker will remember a graphic or some design. Long after the memory of what was written had, has like faded.

But they’re like, Oh, I remember this graphic and it was great. And then we have the other part is the form. We keep a lot of white space on the paper and I am talking paper cause we do predominantly do paper products. There’s electronic dissemination, but it’s largely paper, but we have plenty of white space, larger fonts.

And not only for accessibility, but, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it is very hard to digest what I call word brick. Eight sentences all strung together in a very big paragraph, unless it’s like a super interesting novel. You want to make it a couple of sentences max and then have some space and then you can quickly go through that information.

That’s what we look at when I consider user interface or user experience. The other thing that I would say is just understanding and deploying user experiences. There are internal tools that our officers use and they are users as well. So it’s not just policy makers that they use to sift through intelligence.

And our developers design these things sometimes from the ground up. So luckily, we have a lot of folks that deal with user experience that we can rely on their expertise and lessons learned to use it. I’m not saying we’re perfect at this, right? There’s a long way to go, but I will tell you from the time I started to now, we have gotten much better.

Companies have to answer to their board members and companies have to make sure that their board members understand what they’re saying. Everybody has the same kind of requirements. It’s just who they’re doing it for.

[00:08:06] Chicago Camps: How has the CIA evolved over the years you’ve worked there when it comes to technology?

[00:08:12] Sheetal Patel: I would say in several ways, there’s been a revolution in technology, and I will use my own personal experience. It’s gonna date me a little bit, but mobile phones, I didn’t have those in college. Now we are attached to our electronic devices, smartwatches, smartphones, computers, literally walking around with it, lots of data.

Lots of computing power, a lot of storage, batteries are more powerful. So from an intelligence organization perspective, we have what you would call with all of this tech all around in your surroundings and everything is talking to everything. You have what is called ubiquitous technical surveillance.

It’s everywhere. And it’s not something that I think is a showstopper for us. Like I am very confident we’re up to the task to figure out how to work within such an interconnected environment. But at the same time, if you look at maybe back in the 90s, the PRC was not a competitor in the tech space.

And now if you look at it, it’s been a complete explosion. And the PRC is almost a near peer or peer in lots of tech areas. Especially in hypersonics and AI. And the other change that has happened is, since World War II, a lot of the tech innovation was happening in government. And what has happened in the last decade, 15, 20 years, I think, there has been a shift.

The government still has innovation, but the pace and just the breadth of what is happening is phenomenal in the private sector, in academia. And that is why some of the things that we’re trying to do is really work in a concerted manner. A little bit more with the private sector and academia, just to figure out what is going on in these tech landscape areas.

So I think there has been some evolution in not only how we operate, but how we’re approaching our mission.

[00:10:29] Chicago Camps: From your perspective, what are the main challenges in applying user experience and human centered design approaches in the intelligence sector?

[00:10:38] Sheetal Patel: We present a lot of our information on paper. And so we have customers who still read things in a binder.

So we have to make sure that the old school dissemination practices of ours are still effective in how we present it. We will push the envelope and get insights to policymakers in interactive products and things like that, but predominantly it is still a paper exercise. Policymakers are incredibly busy and they don’t have a lot of time to digest all that information.

So using that user experience so the message is received is one of the biggest challenges. You don’t want to lose the audience before the message has been downloaded. And then the second one is we serve variety of policymakers and that can range from a novice in that subject area to somebody who is Ph. D. level and how to get that information in a format that the Ph. D. level also digests, and it’s not just saying, I already know this, versus the other one where you have to not use tech jargon and not use too many words that require you to pull out a dictionary, but it’s really just digestible.

And getting people to understand that, especially when you’re talking about technology, right? There are a lot of technologists out there and a lot of people understand technology, but, writing in a way that we’re not trying to teach the user. How the technology works, what its capabilities are, and why it matters.

[00:12:27] Chicago Camps: What opportunities do you see for human centered design user experience to transform intelligence gathering and analysis, especially in efficiently communicating complex technical analysis on technology topics, which may be wholly unfamiliar to your user or your customers?

[00:12:46] Sheetal Patel: We do so many things in person or on paper. We try to meet customers where they are and what works. So what does that user need and what level of detail does that user need? Do they really need to know when it comes to tech, every single thing about that tech, or is it just what do they need to know that is necessary to understand it?

One you can write a book on, and one in a page you can say, hey, this is what this technology does, and this is why it’s important, and this is why you should pay attention to it. And that really, at some point, that’s all somebody might need to know.

[00:13:30] Chicago Camps: For user experience and human centered design professionals interested in contributing to national security and intelligence, what advice would you give them?

[00:13:38] Sheetal Patel: Our mission is really broad and there is a need for all kind of experience and expertise. If there is interest in joining us, please go to our website, apply. We are always looking for good candidates. Nobody should think, oh, I did this and, they might not be interested. We have a very wide swath of expertise in the agency.

And I think with what we were just talking about, user experience and HCD, I think there is that market, for lack of a better word, is just going to grow. I think there will be much more of that needed as we move forward and technology grows and how we figure out how to distill a lot of information for customers, and it could be not just policymakers, but anybody who’s interested in information from us about what is going on or our partners.

If folks with your expertise are not interested in really joining us as an employee, we are also open and would love to hear from folks about what they think is going on in the tech space. Anybody can go to CIA. gov, reach out to us. There’s also apply, please. That’s why I think it’s a great organization.

You can have an amazing career. I’ve had an amazing one. You can brief policymakers. You can serve overseas. Choose your own adventure at times.

Event Details
June 10, 2024
5:00 pm
June 10, 2024
6:00 pm
Tent Talks Featuring Sheetal T. Patel: Customer-focused Intelligence: Serving Policymakers with Better UX Design Join us for a riveting session with Sheetal T. Patel, Assistant Director of the CIA for the Transnational and Technology Mission Center, as we explore the...


July 2024