Imagine a world where every government service started with human-centered design.

Earlier this summer, members of Code for America’s service design team did just that, giving San Francisco Design Week attendees a look under the hood at the current state of government services in the United States. They discussed the status quo for government services before COVID-19, how the pandemic has changed things, and how good design can make these vital services easier to use.

The theme for San Francisco Design Week 2020 was “intentional distortions,” which gave us a perfect opportunity to talk about our design and research work. The core of our team’s work is about identifying burdens that government unnecessarily places on people who are seeking help, then coming up with design solutions that remove those burdens and serve people with dignity and respect. We’re imagining a world where all government services are easy to use, inclusive, accessible, and get people the help they need as soon as possible.

To hear more about our agile, iterative, human-centered design processes, watch the video or read the transcript below.

Resources

Qualitative Research at Code for America

Transcript

Jazmyn Latimer:

Let's get started. I'm Jazmyn Latimer. I'm a Design Manager at Code for America. I'm calling in from Harlem in New York. I'm joined here today with my service design team from Code for America. We have one qualitative researcher and three designers on the call who we'll hear from in a few minutes, but we're excited to be participating in San Francisco Design Week. If you don't know about Code for America, we are a national nonprofit full of designers, both product designers, service designers, researchers, data scientists, engineers, product managers and lots, lots more. We all partner with local and state government agencies like California Department of Social Services, Health and Human Services, like the Department of Justice, the local courts, the IRS, like a potpourri of government people.

We try to build technology that's designed to improve the way government services are delivered. So, through design, we think that we can change people's experience of government and take away all of the confusion, frustration, inefficiencies and ineffective processes that people often experience any time they go to vote or pay their taxes or have to go to court or all of the other ways that you interface with government. So, we try to build products and services with modern tools and processes that I'm sure all of you, designers or product people in the room, are familiar with, like an agile, iterative, human-centered design process where we fix government services.

So, in practice, that looks like dissecting policies and helping government implement those policies in a digital space so that they're easy to use, inclusive, accessible, and they get people the help they need as soon as possible. So, we do this in a few different areas. Criminal justice. Our work in criminal justice is on expunging old convictions from people's records, so after you've done your time, after you've finished probation, there's tons of laws in different states that allow you to make changes on your criminal record so that you can rejoin society and stop having the stigma placed upon you. So, we do a lot of work in that space.

We have lots of projects in the safety net space, which is the way that people get access to food benefits, healthcare, like cashless systems, all of those things. We have a project that helps people get earned income tax credits, and then we have a huge volunteer network that's full of technologists like us who like to do civic tech projects for their local cities and governments. So, that's what Code for America does. There's no shortage of projects like this to work on in government as a designer, so I'm so glad that you all joined us here today. Hopefully, some of you will be inspired to do some of this work with us in the future.

So, about today's panel, we took Design Week's theme of intentional distortions, and we thought it was a perfect framing for our work at Code for America. Everything I do here as a designer at Code for America is about identifying the ways that government places burdens on people seeking help accidentally, unnecessarily, or by design. Then, we try to come up with design solutions that removes or reduces those burdens, so that the person seeking help, that's what they need as soon as possible, and they have a good, dignified, positive experience doing it.

So, we're going to talk today about some of the burdens that we're working on removing in our work. We'll be talking about safety net eligibility. I have our qualitative researcher, Deirdre Hirschtritt. Sorry, Deirdre. I work really closely with Deirdre on our projects in Minnesota that she'll tell you about, but she'll be talking about how, sometimes in government, there's an intentional burden created for people seeking help like an eligibility. Carlie Guilfoile was a product designer here, and she'll be talking about sign-in flows and when the burden ... administrative burden that people have to go through is in a wrong place. Then, Anu Murthy, our senior product designer here, working on earned income tax credits where we're talking about identity verification and when there's invisible burdens that we have to troubleshoot and find and solve for.

First up, we'll talk about how government creates intentional burdens for people seeking help around verification of eligibility and how our work on the safety net is attempting to alleviate that. So, I'd love to welcome Deirdre Hirschtritt. She's a qualitative researcher here for Code for America, a real nerd about all things safety net. We work together on our Integrated Benefits Initiative in Minnesota. Deirdre, come on down. I wish we had like walking music like at The Oscars or something.

Deirdre Hirschtritt:

Let's pretend I'm walking.

Jazmyn Latimer:

Thanks for joining us. Where are you calling in from today?

Deirdre Hirschtritt:

Thanks for having me. I'm calling in from Oakland, California. Beautiful Oakland, California.

Jazmyn Latimer:

So, as I mentioned, Deirdre's going to talk about when the burden is intentional. So, first, can you tell us, for those that don't know, what is a safety net? What does it mean to try to improve access to safety net services?

Deirdre Hirschtritt:

Oh, that's a big question. Okay. So, the safety net is sort of the broadly used term to describe government services that provides for folks when they need it. So, you mentioned some of these earlier, so safety net programs might include something like food stamps, which might be familiar to folks. We now call that SNAP or Medicaid, so health assistance. There are also programs that are offering things like cash assistance. The term welfare might be familiar to some folks. That's a term that we no longer use but describes some of these programs.

All these programs are intended to support folks who have very low income, and so the way that people gain access to these programs is by proving that they have very low income. So, there are a lot of stop gaps that I'm happy to tell you more about to sort of provide the government assurance that they're offering services to the people who need them. There are lots of ways that the government makes sure that they're providing it to those folks and no one else.

Jazmyn Latimer:

Got it. So, you said when government has to prove that someone is eligible. What are all the things that you have to do to prove that you're eligible in Minnesota?

Deirdre Hirschtritt:

Yeah. So, a little background, I'm working on a program in Minnesota right now. I saw someone on the line is from Hennepin County. We love Hennepin.

Jazmyn Latimer:

Oh, hi, Hennepin.

Deirdre Hirschtritt:

Yeah. So, we're working on a project in Minnesota right now. I work in a team called the Integrated Benefits Initiative. We've worked in multiple states across the U.S. Alaska, Colorado, Louisiana, Michigan, Vermont, and now, we're in Minnesota. We're trying to build an application that will make it easier for folks to apply for multiple programs through one mobile responsive website.

So, what you have up on screen right here is from what they call the CAF, the Combined Application Form. This is a paper form. I believe it's like 12 to 15 pages. I've watched people in the government offices try to fill this out, and it takes a long time. These are some of the documents that folks need to provide to prove, like I said, that they're eligible for these government services. So, SNAP, that program all the way to the right on this chart, that's food stamps now and then cash programs, and there are different programs whether you have a family or whether you're a single adult. You can see all the things that you need to provide to the government.

What I find fascinating about this list is that almost all of these things were provided to you from the government in the first place, and now, you basically have to serve them back. So, think about the first couple of these, right? Identity of applicant or authorized representative. That's a driver's license, a state ID, a passport. Remember, these are programs that the state is providing, so those programs, I mentioned SNAP, Medicaid, these cash programs, many of them are federally funded, but they're administered by states. There are 10 states across U.S., California and Minnesota among them that are considered county administered, meaning that all of the counties in the state actually have one more layer of administrative responsibility.

So, you see a state ID up here. You're like, "Why is the state asking me to produce my ID that they initially provided me to prove that I am who I say I am?" It just doesn't make a lot of sense. We see it being a burden over and over and over again. I love the example of like a state ID, that's a perfect one, or a birth certificate. So, you have a child. You are in a hospital. The state issues you a birth certificate for that child. Then, you need help later on, and you need to prove that the help that you need is for your child maybe, and you have to prove either maternity, paternity and reproduce that birth certificate that the state originally issued you to prove that that child is yours. It's-

Jazmyn Latimer:

Yeah. It's-

Deirdre Hirschtritt:

It seems so backward.

Jazmyn Latimer:

We have this picture here too. Okay. Can you tell us about this moment? This is a moment from a research in Minnesota.

Deirdre Hirschtritt:

Oh, yeah. I took this picture. Yeah. So, this is in Hennepin County office. This is a fascinating part of doing this kind of research, right? So, I think I was looking on the poll, and I see that, let's see, the majority of folks are coming from the for profit sector. I'm sure that many designers and researchers on the call are familiar with the practice of contextual inquiry where we go out to a place and see someone as they do their work. So, often, this happens in an office where we go and sit with the caseworker and as folks come to see them, we sort of see all the screens that the caseworker is using, all of the paper that they're shuffling. They go back and forth to the scanning machine and to the printer. We wanted to see what that was like on the other side.

So, we set up a table in the entry way of the Human Services Office and invited people ... We had a little sign that said, "We'll give you a $50 gift certificate if you allow us to shadow you as you go through the experience of this office." This woman graciously accepted our offer, and as she went from person to person, I followed and just watched and just sat. Didn't take any identifying information down, but just saw what the interaction was like, what kind of information she was asked to provide. Before any of that happened, she sat down in the lobby, and she produced what you see. All of these papers. I said, "Why? What do you got there?" It seems like she had her firstborn child with her, ready to give them up. She literally brought any documentation that she thinks that the office might require.

That's because they've asked for so many things in the past, and so many folks who are going to seek help have sought that help in the past, and they've experienced it. They know that a caseworker is going to ask for like the third piece of paper that you didn't bring with you. That means that you have to go home, you have to bring it back, and you have to deposit again. All of those trips is all more effort that someone has to go through to prove they're eligible.

Jazmyn Latimer:

Yeah. I don't even have half of my paperwork.

Deirdre Hirschtritt:

Right.

Jazmyn Latimer:

... security card is like a feat in itself for me.

Deirdre Hirschtritt:

Yeah.

Jazmyn Latimer:

So, why does government do this? Here in 2020, we did think it was going to be a better year, but we at least have like ... A lot of people don't use paper anymore, don't even have printers. So, why are they [inaudible 00:12:13] people to bring all these documents?

Deirdre Hirschtritt:

Yeah. I think it won't surprise anyone on this call who works in government or has worked in government or has interacted with government. It's a slow moving machine. It's really slow, and that's by design. When you're moving millions or billions of dollars to run a country, run a state, run a county, run a city, it's important to have some of those safeguards and to have some of those stop-gaps. The problem becomes when those stop-gaps are sort of in the way of doing what government is supposed to do and support people. So, some of those come in when we see ... We want to make sure that people across the country are fed, and then we want to make sure that those people need the support, and so we need that they should prove that they're eligible. Every time you sort of get down this chain of logic of having people prove that they're eligible so that government is providing the service that they want to, it's just one more step in the way. I think the biggest problem is when government puts that responsibility on clients as opposed to taking it on themselves.

You're absolutely right. People don't have printers, and so it's really interesting. I'm preaching to the choir to you but not to the people on the line maybe that working for Code for America is really great because we're able to sort of see the places where technology can play a really pivotal role in breaking down some of those barriers and easing some of those restrictions in terms of allowing the government to take on those responsibilities instead of clients.

Jazmyn Latimer:

Yes. I mean, you're definitely preaching to the choir, but I love hearing it. Some other things that government makes people prove are just ... I mean, you and I have laughed together about some of the questions. I want to say there's one question when we're at location that says ... It's like making sure that somebody doesn't have a million dollars in assets.

Deirdre Hirschtritt:

Yeah. So, if you're applying for TANF, a Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in Minnesota, they have a requirement. Oh, actually, no. This is for Child Care Assistance Program. So, the Child Care Assistance Program, the only asset question that they ask is, "Do you have more than a million dollars in assets? Yes or no?" I asked caseworkers. I said, "Has anyone ever clicked yes?" They said, "Yes, because the question is worded so poorly that people didn't understand." I think that's a pivotal role that we play in sort of translating government requirements to human language, and so that's our project in Minnesota right now where we're building ... I think you're going to hear about this from Carlie a little bit, where we're building an integrated application that asks a question in a human-centered way that's at a fifth grade reading level for clients and then translating that for caseworkers into something that they can use in these archaic systems that they have.

I can see this picture here is showing one of those caseworkers. Like I said, we did shadowing in the same office. This is sort of the behind the scenes look. You can see all of the paper on top of this caseworker's desk. You can see two computer screens, and he has access to a couple of different data sources that include things like quarterly wage data. So, employers have to provide quarterly wage data about their employees to the federal government. There are some other private hubs like this, and so oftentimes, we're asking clients to provide income information like a check stub. Meanwhile, caseworkers have that information already. You can see a little bit of that here.

Jazmyn Latimer:

Yeah. That was one of the most frustrating things that I saw when I was shadowing with you in Minnesota, was like I remember sitting with a caseworker and a family who had brought in all their documents. They had all these verification documents. The caseworker said like, "Okay, thank you," and then looked it up in their computer and just verified the amount on their computer with the amount on the document. I'm like, "What?" Even the caseworker knew. They're like, "I know it's dumb, but we have to do this."

Deirdre Hirschtritt:

Yeah.

Jazmyn Latimer:

So, I feel you. If we could change it, what should it look like? What's better?

Deirdre Hirschtritt:

Oh, where do I start? Yeah. I think there are sort of like steps in the way to our progress. I think one is, like I said, when a client comes in to this office, they fill out this 15-page application document that asks questions in this archaic way that sort of serves the agency but doesn't serve the client in terms of understandability. So, one step, I think, is using technology where it can be used. We hear a lot ... So, I'm doing some research now with indigenous communities in the state. There are 11 federally recognized tribes in the state of Minnesota, and I'm doing some research with those folks. We hear over and over again, many of whom are rural, going 60 miles to the county seat to apply for benefits is just not feasible. It's extremely expensive to get there. Some folks don't have reliable transit, and so let's bring the application to the people.

We know that people who are experiencing poverty access the internet primarily through smartphones. I think maybe in Silicon Valley, we have this bias in thinking that folks don't have access to internet, but time and time and time again, we see that's just not true, that people do have access, and if we sort of bring the technology to them, there's an opportunity to make services more accessible. So, I think one thing is to just create applications in plain language that makes sense, that are easy to use, and that sort of capitalize on the existing data that government already has. The next step, which would be even better, is almost answered on this screen, which is like use the data that we already have. We know that government ... Oh, wow. You're prepared for this, Jazmyn. Great deck. What if program enrollment was automatic? Exactly, right?

Jazmyn Latimer:

What if, well-

Deirdre Hirschtritt:

So, I think we have all of this information. Why are we asking people to reproduce the same documents that we originally created for them in the first place. If we have wage data that employers have already submitted, why are we asking clients to produce that same data? I mean, ideally, there wouldn't be any applications at all, right? Ideally, the government knows that he's been laid off. The government knows that you have low income. The government knows that you have an extra child and need more help feeding them and provide that opportunity right then like, "Here is your EBT card. Here's the card that will allow you to buy food with food stamps. Here is cash assistance. Here is medical assistance. Here is housing assistance."

We know that when people eat, we know that when people get preventative healthcare, we are better as a society. We are better off ... Those costs cascade, and we know that when people don't have that support early on, it becomes much, much, much more expensive to provide that support later on, and to just have a human view of the world that people deserve to eat, people deserve to live, people deserve to have safe housing. If the government has the opportunity to support that, which in the U.S., we believe they should and across the world, we believe they should, then there's an obligation to make this work. There's an obligation to make all of these systems better and place the burden on the government instead of clients who are already in need.

Jazmyn Latimer:

Yeah.

Deirdre Hirschtritt:

I'm getting down from my soap box now.

Jazmyn Latimer:

Well, that's a perfect note to end on. Thank you so much Deirdre. Everybody, follow Deirdre because as you can see, she's very profound and knows a lot about safety net things and how we can make things better.

Deirdre Hirschtritt:

Yeah. Thanks for having me, Jazmyn.

Jazmyn Latimer:

Thank you so much, and Deirdre will be in the chat if you have any questions for her. Next up, we have Carlie Guilfoile who'll be talking about when the burden is in the wrong place and her take on sign-in and onboarding. Carlie is calling in from Oakland. She's a product designer here at Code for America and a recent Carnegie Mellon Design School graduate, also a formal political and community organizer, and she works really closely with Deirdre and I on the Minnesota Integrated Benefits Initiative that Deirdre was just talking about. Hey, Carlie.

Carlie Guilfoile:

Hi.

Jazmyn Latimer:

Explain why sign-in is a burden for people applying for benefits in Minnesota.

Carlie Guilfoile:

Yeah. Well, we all have bad experiences with sign-in. I'll just start with that. I think if I were to take a poll of the 500 people in this room, every single person could probably recall a time when they forgot their username or password, and they won't probably be able to describe to us just how annoying or time-sucking that experience was. So, this sign-in and forgetting the password is a universal problem for technology users, and we all do it so often between social media and signing into your bank account and buying things online. I have so many opportunities to sign in a day, and I know you guys do too, so it's a big design problem in itself. Then, if we think about the context of our work, as a designer, I'm building an application, as Deirdre said, that makes it easier for people to access benefits. Then, the people that we're designing for are experiencing hardship.

So, imagine you're applying for these benefits but you're also hungry or you're also homeless, or you need healthcare for your sick child. So, you carry all of this burden experiencing poverty, and you just want to get help and then you have this additional gatekeeper of signing in and getting that, right? So, you can imagine that this just multiplies people's anxieties about the process just right upfront. That's why we talk about it being a burden in the wrong place because sign-in is a barrier to access. You can't get benefits if you don't apply for them at least in today's world. Yeah, so that's sort of what we're talking about today.

Jazmyn Latimer:

So, a few months ago, we were doing usability testing. Can you talk about that experience, specifically Becca's story of getting stuck in sign-in?

Carlie Guilfoile:

Yeah. Yeah, so just as you said, we at Code for America, we spend a lot of time doing user testing. In this particular case, we shadowed someone that we'll call Becca, and we wanted to basically understand the current experience of applying for benefits online in Minnesota, and we are curious about the mobile experience. So, what you're seeing on the screen here is what it looked like for Becca when she found the website. So, you can see right off the bat, it's not mobile friendly. So, we watched her first zoom in and zoom out just to try to figure out how to get started. Then, when she was able to read the content, she found out that she needed to create a username, new login.

So, most of the folks listening probably sort of know that there's a series of steps that she needed to take to do that, like putting in personal information, creating a password with certain characters, verifying that she's a human being. On this particular application, there's some challenged phrases, so things like, what state did your mom and dad meet in? So, in addition to being burdensome upfront in the wrong place, some of these questions, if you spend time looking at them, you can see that they can be insensitive to different cultures, different family structures, and they don't quite reflect people's lived experience.

So, back to Becca, she finally hit Create a Login, and she was met with an error. She went back four different times, switched to her laptop, started from scratch, and she finally successfully created a username and password. She tried to use it to log in and get started, and she saw that there's a system there. So, as you can imagine, that's really frustrating. That's awful. By the end of it, it took Becca 30 minutes to create the login and then to sort of get started. That's before she's gone through any of the application. So, at Code for America, sometimes ... I mean you know this. Sometimes, we call this a locked front door. It's really difficult to get in and get started.

Then, really, the difficult part is that we see people like Becca moving through this, and they're engaging in a negative self-talk. So, when we do these testing sessions, we just say, "Tell us what you're thinking. Talk out loud." Becca said things like, "This is making me feel so stupid. As designers, we can see that the system is not built for people it's supposed to be serving, but instead of blaming the system, instead of saying, "The system is stupid. The stupid is not working," they blame themselves. So, it's our responsibility to build an entry point that's accessible, easy to use, and trauma-informed, and that's exactly what we're working on doing.

Jazmyn Latimer:

Yeah. I remember one of the things that also really struck me about this interview when I was observing it with you was that when we finally got into the application process, Becca talked a lot about dealing with mental health and all of these things in her life that were like really overwhelming her, and just if you pair that with all of the self-talk that she was saying while she was trying to sign up, just create an account like, "I'm so stupid. Oh, I must not be getting this. I don't know anything," all of those things, like I don't know. It's just really frustrating to see people go through that from a simple poorly designed flow. Why is this the case? Why does government create this burden for clients?

Carlie Guilfoile:

Yeah. So, when I think about that question, I guess I want to take it back a little bit and think about why do technologies use passwords, or like why do passwords, why do logins exist, and just sort of prepare for this talk, I just started jotting down a bunch of reasons why I thought passwords existed. There are three themes that came up for me. First one is security, so sort of like protecting personal information, keeping you safe. The second is rewards. So, being a frequent flyer or being a member that gets money off.

Then, the third, it's convenience. So, this is sort of about how you engage with technology in giving you flexibility to maybe say things and come back, that type of thing. When we think about this context, these government forms, they're trying to do this third thing. They're trying to make it more convenient for folks to save and maybe come back, but basically, they end up doing the exact opposite. Because the barrier to get started is so big, it becomes completely inconvenient. So, there's a mismatch there and a disconnection. Then, I just want to share that in some states, when a client forgets their password, it's actually mailed to them. So, they have to wait five to seven business days to get their password, and then try again. So, it can be a nightmare.

Jazmyn Latimer:

It's like such a memory task too, like remembering your passwords or having the technical literacy to use a password manager, which so many people do not.

Carlie Guilfoile:

Yeah. That's crazy too because password managers are a bucket where all your passwords are in the same place, and it's protected by a password.

Jazmyn Latimer:

Right. We can't win. So, how are you trying to move this burden in your redesigns, like in the work that you do with Deirdre in Minnesota?

Carlie Guilfoile:

Well, first, if I could talk a little bit about working with government, I think you might be interested with the folks on the call to ... We always get asked, "What it's like to work with government?" So, I guess, as a designer trying to build services in collaboration with government, there are four things that are always changing and it's important to keep an eye on. I think even folks that are working in the private sector might be familiar with these things. The first is policy. So, most of these programs, the ones we work with, are guided by federal policies, but they're implemented by the state. So, that's sort of an interesting nuance. Then, there's culture, so like what's happening in the world? With COVID, people are acting much differently than they did six months ago. Expectations, so what's the user experience? How do people expect to interact with the service? Then, technology, so what's possible?

The fundamental reality of all those things is that they're always changing, and I think where we add value ... I think Deirdre said this. I tried to jot it down. She said, "We're translating government requirements to human language." So, in a way, I think what we try to do is to help government think about these four things that I just mentioned and help them make connections between them, and understand how they sort of affect each other.

Jazmyn Latimer:

Right. So, how do we try to deal with sign-in in Minnesota with all of this?

Carlie Guilfoile:

Well, drum roll is that we have removed it. There is no sign-in in our new application, so what you're seeing on the screen here is our sort of ... We're in stage V1, and so we removed sign-in because we did a ton of research and evaluation into the four things I just mentioned. So, when we looked at policy, we saw, like at a state level, we didn't see any need to keep sign-in from a policy perspective. Technology capabilities, we realized that we can capture the information that they're capturing in sign-in, the identity of the person, the contact information, we can do that elsewhere. Culture, I think people are increasingly frustrated with usernames and passwords, and then again, to add on top of that, COVID. People are not ... they are being safe, they're staying home more, and technology needs to be super accessible to them.

Then, expectations is this idea of a locked front door, so users expect that this is going to be difficult, and we want to open that door for them. So, we've replaced it with a flow that applicants can get through successfully and confidently in one sitting or just 15 to 20 minutes, which is a huge difference. I think the current application takes about an hour and 20 minutes if I'm correct. So, yeah, I think folks who may be listening in might be surprised that the big reveal is that we didn't like redesign with a fancy new UI but that we just took it out altogether, and instead, we're focusing on making sure applicants feel confident when they get started. It's great we've convinced the state that through education in the onboarding process, through more of a guided experience and a much, much shorter application, we can still meet their needs, their technical needs and policy needs, and dramatically improve the applicant experience, which is really what we're focused on.

Jazmyn Latimer:

Yeah. Well, thank you so much, Carlie, for sharing your story and your perspective on sign-in. Everybody, follow Carlie on Twitter-

Carlie Guilfoile:

Thanks, Jazmyn.

Jazmyn Latimer:

... how our Minnesota project's going. Thanks so much.

Carlie Guilfoile:

Yeah.

Jazmyn Latimer:

So, next, we have Anu, our last designer on the panel. Anu, working with the IRS on tax preparation and is going to talk about invisible burdens in government service delivery and the ways that her team at Code for America has helped to make visible a huge drop-off point during the identity verification process and redesigned it to be something better. Hey, Anu. She's calling here from Wisconsin, right?

Anu Murthy:

Hey, Jazmyn. Yeah, that's right.

Jazmyn Latimer:

Thanks for joining us. Okay, let me change this slide. Bam. So, Anu, can you tell us a little bit about GetYourRefund and what you're working on?

Anu Murthy:

Yeah. So, our work on GetYourRefund, which is a free online tax service, our goal is to provide free trustworthy tax assistance and help more people receive tax credits that they're eligible for. Our early research showed us that about $10 billion in tax credits are left on the table, and so, we partnered with a free IRS tax prep program to build out a digital model for their work. So, it's really, really exciting, but because it's the first time we're offering this service online, there's definitely been some caution around things like identity verification.

Jazmyn Latimer:

I'm so glad that we're working on it because there's other ... TurboTax does this. Credit Karma does it, and we're just doing it on the government side for people in need. So, what does identity verification look like, and how is it intentionally difficult?

Anu Murthy:

Yeah. So, online identity verification can look like a number of things. It can be as simple as uploading a photo of your ID or submitting the last four digits of your Social Security number, or we might validate your permanent address to confirm you live at that address, but stricter identity verification is intentionally difficult especially for the populations that we serve. There are different levels of online identity verification, and so the higher they go, the more strict that process can be. A stricter process can look like uploading a photo of your ID, uploading a second photo of an ID, a different ID, possibly verifying your permanent address or submitting your Social Security number in addition to this.

Anu Murthy:

So, in the stricter process, we're asking you multiple time to validate that you are, in fact, who you say you are. I think Deirdre talked about this earlier. It's like we're asking you to reinforce you are, in fact, this person that you say that you are. Sometimes, we default to a stricter process to be safe, but in the name of playing it safe, we build these invisible barriers like stricter identity verification rules often benefit a specific group of people who have access disability, but Deirdre and Carlie, as they mentioned earlier, many of our clients are experiencing hardships, and we need to take that into consideration as we build our product.

Jazmyn Latimer:

How do you find an invisible burden placed on clients? We know that identity verification is an invisible burden, but how did you discover that?

Anu Murthy:

Yeah, so in an earlier version, like I said, there was caution for us. We're offering this service online for the very first time, so there was definitely some caution around how it would translate and how careful we needed to be. Like I said, we sometimes default to playing it safe just to be careful, and so an earlier version of GetYourRefund early on, we actually used a stricter identity verification tool because we wanted to play it safe. We saw that we weren't able to serve many of our clients. About 80% of our clients hit invisible barrier. They just hit errors when they went to verify their identity. It was so frustrating and confusing for our clients because many of our clients arrived with all of the necessary information that we were asking of them. So, this is a red flag.

When you see that 80% of people who are trying to access your service can't even get through the first step, that's a huge red flag, so we uncovered this invisible barrier. We saw that our clients were hitting errors because maybe they moved a number of times, and they didn't have a steady permanent address. So, that's a red flag, or they had an expired driver's license or even a temporary license, which sometimes, that can work as a second form of ID just to validate that you are who you are, but in an automated process, that's a red flag. Even if you don't have access to a smartphone with a high quality camera, you're going to hit an error. We saw this. We saw clients do go through all of the steps. They take a photo of their ID, they submit that photo. To you and I, that photo looks perfectly fine, and then they'd hit an error because this isn't being factored. These needs, like these lived experiences are not being factored into an automated process.

Jazmyn Latimer:

Now, it's still so much more important than ever. I know you've seen such a spike in interest in this project since now, you can't go in person to troubleshoot with somebody. The technology actually has to work, and it has to work for everyone. Well, how did you and your team removed this barrier created by this other identity verification tool and redesign it in GetYourRefund?

Anu Murthy:

Yeah. So, we've now taken on the identity verification portion of our product, which has given us a lot of visibility. We've also simplified the process to be a photo upload. It's manually verified by IRS certified volunteers. These steps alone have reduced so many of the barriers that I mentioned earlier, and we're already seeing how successful it is. We've already been able to serve or deliver over $5 million in tax credits to clients. So, we've seen the before and after. We saw what a strict identity verification process looks like for our clients, and we're seeing what more client-friendly, user-centered process look like, and so we're advocating that this way that we're now using, this upload a photo, that manual verification process, we're advocating that this is how we serve our clients in the future.

Jazmyn Latimer:

Yeah. I think that's so interesting too. We often think in the tech industry or tech world or whatever, automation is often the goal, like automate everything, which we all know there's tons of problems with that. In this situation, it was like actually scale it back a little bit. We're going to have IRS volunteers manually verify the documents. Why is that? Is that because they can just catch with a human eye like, "Yeah, this is fine. It's okay"?

Anu Murthy:

Yeah. Like I mentioned, in the automated process, we saw that even photo, like a basic photo that looks fine to you and I might not pass through a certain automated process. So, when that's the case, if everyone's submitting a photo like, we got to review how we're handling this situation. So, we're already seeing that people are coming forth. We saw before and we're seeing now, the same clients are coming to us with all the information. It's just that in this automated process, we're not able to actually look more closely at what the situation is and confirm, "Oh, this is true. You are this person. This driver license works. This is the same photo," that sort of thing. Sometimes, doing a more manual process is the way to go, and that's kind of what we learned.

Jazmyn Latimer:

Well, thank you so much for sharing your story and your work on GetYourRefund. Everyone ... Oh, yeah. Let me get to your slide. Bam. Follow Anu on Twitter. You post stuff about your work, and she's also into like cool arts, and yeah, follow Anu. She's great.

Anu Murthy:

Thanks for having me, Jazmyn.

Jazmyn Latimer:

Thank you. All right. So, that was our panel. I just have a few last words for you all. Thanks for hanging in there with us. I hope this was interesting for everybody. So, I hope you can start to see just some of the ways that you can ... well, that government has no shortage of design problems to tackle with your skills. Our work looks like a lot of qualitative research with Deirdre who often guides us. Our work also includes talking to policy people, visiting clients in their homes or wherever they're applying for services. There's so much product design opportunities with the application flows and uploading documents and verifying identities that Anu and Deirdre mentioned. There's just so many ways that you can use design to intentionally remove burdens for people who are seeking help from government.

So, to just recap what we talked about, when the burden is intentional like in safety net eligibility where you're required to verify or prove that you are eligible for services, we can think about redesigning the application process so that it's more human-centered, telling people what documents they're going to need upfront, or maybe in the future, just that part of the process would be really great to automate because government already has data on the things that would make people eligible. Or in sign-in when Carlie talked about the burden being in the wrong place, we can literally remove it completely and bring signing-in in when it's more appropriate in the flow, and just think about onboarding people to the benefits application experience in a way that's more encouraging rather than locking them out at the front door." Then, lastly, Anu talked about when the burden is invisible with identity verification and how they actually went back to manual verification process when they noticed that 80% of their users weren't getting through the first step in the flow.

All of these are ways that we can improve government by removing the distortions that exist at where a policy is written that is supposed to benefit people or help them, like these people should get food assistance, these people should get healthcare, these people should get to clear their records, but when it's implemented, it's just too hard to get. So, a big thank you to all of our panelist, Deirdre, Carlie, Anu, and all of you for joining us today. If you're inspired and you want to learn more or get involved, we ... One, we wrote a qualitative research guide if you do that in your work. We're hiring. We're always growing, so you can check out our open roles here.

I mentioned our Brigade Network earlier in the call. That's a group every ... Lots of cities around the country have Brigade networks, and that's a group of technologists, designers, people just interested in improving government. They meet every week somewhere locally in your city and decide on which projects they want to do for their cities. You can always stay in touch If you join our mailing list or follow us on Twitter, and then we also post at Public Interest Tech job board, which is a job board full of government jobs and public interest tech jobs that aren't just Code for America but all over the country really. So, I'm Jazmyn Latimer, Design Manager at Code for America. You can follow me on Twitter as well. I'm looking forward to seeing you all at other events. Have a great day.

 

Tags:   Design Research