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University of Michigan School of Information


Faces of UMSI: Rachael Zuppke

Rachael Zuppke poses in front of an academic building on campus.

For Rachael Zuppke, advocacy is a form of art. A Master of Science in Information student specializing in user experience research, Zuppke came to the University of Michigan School of Information with 15 years of experience working for nonprofit organizations.  

But she got her start in visual art. She graduated from the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design and spent four years planning the bustling Ann Arbor Street Art Fair — an annual event that connects the Ann Arbor community to artists from across the country — before moving to Chicago to work at Project Onward, a nonprofit art gallery for adults with disabilities

It was there, Zuppke says, that she became interested in social impact work more broadly. She eventually returned to Michigan and began advocating for clients at Legal Services of South Central Michigan, which provides free civil legal assistance to low-income individuals and families. 

“We focused on eviction prevention, foreclosure prevention, public benefit maintenance,” Zuppke says. “When you think of food assistance, Medicaid, social security benefits — we were working on all of those issues.” On a daily basis, she saw the impact of technological barriers and inaccessible design on her clients’ ability to access necessary services. 

She recalls once spending an hour on the phone with a client while trying six separate times to submit an application for unemployment benefits on his behalf. “This was a regular and routine layoff during the pandemic, and he just could not get access to benefits because of a technology issue,” she says. “I saw that, typically, government entities had the worst design principles.” 

This revelation led her to information science. “I felt like there must be a place where I could intervene that is adjacent to law, adjacent to policy, but comes from a different perspective — where I could work on these issues in a creative way,” she recalls. “UX ticked all of those boxes.”

A portrait of Rachael Zuppke smiling with an academic building visible behind her.
As an equity-minded UX researcher, Rachael Zuppke is leveraging technology to improve government services. 

During her first year in the MSI program, Zuppke has been as industrious as you might expect a former art fair planner and paralegal to be. She has experience managing complex projects, coupled with a deep awareness of the impact her field of study can have on people’s lives. 

“What I am finding to be really unique about UX, in general, are  design thinking and user-centered research processes,” she says. “It forces you to take a step back, listen to stakeholders, get a deep understanding of the problem, and withhold solution-oriented thinking for a short period of time.” 

She believes these processes can lead to “more interesting, innovative outcomes” in any field — especially in government, where there is often a disconnect between peoples’ experiences and what government agencies understand or address. 

Recently, Zuppke was awarded funding from the U-M Anti-Racist Digital Institute for her proposed digital scholarship project, “Empowering Tenants.” Over the coming year, she and Bobby Madamanchi, a UMSI lecturer and local labor activist, will collaborate to develop a civic technology infrastructure to support information exchange among tenants and policymakers in Washtenaw County. 

“We thought this grant would be a unique opportunity to merge our skills and interests,” Zuppke says. “Our goal is to create a digital tool that will allow tenants to report issues, like neglected repairs, mistreatment by management and confusing notices, to tenant unions or legislators, with the ultimate goal of leading to broader systemic change in housing policy.”

This kind of work — finding information solutions for systemic injustices — is exactly what brought Zuppke to UMSI. As an equity-minded UX researcher, she is able to collaborate directly with communities, as she has done throughout her career. But now she has a new toolkit. 

"I'm interested in using UX and design research to get information from real people into government, to not only shape technology but also policy," Zuppke says. 

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