April 1, 2016
Our teams have had good success in international design competitions. We are especially proud of our wins in social impact competitions such as Records for Life and the Blue Button health record.
Most recently, a team won the award for large organizations in the USDA’s E.A.T. UX Challenge. The goal was to create a model electronic application for the National School Lunch Program to help millions of American students access school meals.
Anyone who just filed their taxes will understand the pain of filling out complex forms. Cramped boxes, confusing instructions, and obscure information makes most forms a nightmare to fill out.
Yet, forms like these are one of the primary ways we interact with the government.
Millions of Americans rely on government programs for support. But the application forms are a barrier to the very people they’re intended to help. The complexity of these forms leads to high error and rejection rates.
After years of dealing with issues caused by the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) application form, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) said, “Enough is enough.”
OPM worked with the USDA to redesign a complicated nine-page NSLP application into a one-page form.
The initial effort was a great success. But OPM didn’t stop there. It set a goal to take the application digital.
And so officials launched the E.A.T. UX Challenge.
We were inspired that OPM questioned existing conventions. We rallied behind the goal to bring new value to users.
Our team had a blast with the challenge, and we were honored to win the Large Organization Recognition Award. We’d like to share how we approached the challenge, and we hope that it is helpful to others wishing to make positive change in the world.
Four takeaways that characterize our work and OPM’s approach:
- Identify conventions that should be challenged.
- Keep asking “Why?” to get to the root of a problem.
- Always use an interdisciplinary team.
- Challenge convention with genuine curiosity.
Identify conventions that should be challenged.
We create policies and procedures because they guide workflow and solve a particular problem at that time. But as time goes on, circumstances change.
What worked well in the past may not work well now or in the near future.
Questioning existing conventions is a great way to identify areas to create new value. But there are so many established conventions in any organization — where’s the best place to start?
Begin by identifying places where the intent of a process or policy doesn’t line up with its actual result.
OPM officials found this in their work, and responded to the feeling that there’s got to be a better way.
The NSLP application form was supposed to give families easy access to nutritious meals for their children. In practice, the form created undue anxiety for parents and a waste of time and money by the government.
Keep asking “Why?” to get to the root of a problem.
- Why does the application need to be this way?
- Why are users consistently making mistakes?
- Why is the tone of the language so formal?
Questions like these helped us dig deeper into the problem itself.
It’s easiest to take a problem as given and just run with it. But spending time to question the problem more deeply leads to meaningful insights.
When our team approached the problem, we knew the form itself was challenging to users. But we had a hunch there was more to the challenge than the form itself.
So we conducted a number of interviews with parents — actual users of the form.
We learned that the form itself induces incredible stress for the parents. It’s complicated and they fear making a mistake. Unfortunately, this isn’t a test at school with just a grade at risk.
Making a mistake means their children might not have lunch to eat.
We drove deeper to understand and empathize with the user’s experience. It led us to an important reframe.
While the form itself is complex, there are opportunities to improve the user experience before users start the application, and after they’ve submitted it.
Users needed to feel confident when beginning the process, receive guidance throughout, and be reassured they completed the form correctly when done.
Always use an interdisciplinary team.
It is hard to identify and challenge existing conventions. We are used to the way things are. We’re often too close to the problem to see it with fresh eyes. And we often think about the problem in the same way.
Here’s an easy fix. It’s vastly easier to get in a more open and diverse mindset when you can approach the problem from multiple perspectives.
Maybe you think we’re lucky to have researchers, strategists, and designers all available to work on problems. It’s not luck. It’s intentional. We cultivate diverse teams that encourage and challenge each other to think differently.
You can do this, too — cultivate diverse teams that encourage and challenge each other to think differently. If you’re working alone or mostly with people of the same discipline, seek out others with completely different backgrounds or expertise. Find somebody that has no experience or expertise relevant to what you’re designing.
Have them provide ideas and feedback about what you’re working on. Listen carefully. Enjoy the different viewpoints. Ask clarifying questions.
Bringing different viewpoints together enables a team to ask better questions and imagine more diverse solutions.
We would not have developed the solution we did without bringing multiple perspectives to the table. Early in the design process, Susie (a strategist) brought up TurboTax as an analogous example that makes filling out forms a friendly experience. With that inspiration, Amy and Nick (designers) were able to experiment with new ways of presenting instructions to the users.
Each discipline brings different inputs and a new skill set to the table.
See how the rest of our solution came together here:
Challenge with empathy and curiosity.
By disrupting the way things are, you’re bound to run into resistance. Change is uncomfortable for people — especially when you’re challenging something that has been in place for many years.
Resistance to change is inevitable. To minimize the impact of that resistance, approach challenging convention with an attitude of curiosity.
Fixing the problem isn’t just about subverting old ways. It’s about providing value for your users.
You’ve identified a mismatch between how something should work and how it actually works. Now you’re curious about how you can bring new value to your users by fixing it.
Stay curious about understanding the problem. Maintain your focus on driving value. This mindset will help you navigate the inevitable roadblocks you encounter along the way.
Think if OPM officials had approached their original challenge with an attitude of busting down the establishment. They would have had a much tougher time achieving success.