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Discovering Efficiencies in the Processing of Government Forms

April 25, 2016

If you’ve ever purchased a home, the most painful part of the experience was probably filling out those seemingly endless forms—that and paying for the home, of course. Why can’t filling out government forms be more like using TurboTax?!

Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes in pulling those government forms together? There is a whole enterprise-software industry focusing on data entry and processing for the forms that the government and banking industry require. That industry is just one of many that need to find a better way to process the multitude of government forms. In this article, let’s take a look at the UX challenges this industry faces—for example, a lack of context, or situational awareness—and discuss the different opportunities organizations have in addressing them.

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Government Forms and the Form-Processing Enterprise

As much as governments may want to create jobs—or, at least, to keep their people employed—they are not purposely trying to create an industry to deal with their forms. In fact, the US government spends a lot of time trying to improve the usability of its forms. It passed the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which requires that government forms be “clear, concise [and] well-organized.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean the forms have to be usable.

The US government also has a digital-services division that is dedicated to improving online experiences and provides the fantastic resource Usability.gov. The Usability.gov Web site does a great job of providing insights into how to make forms easier to navigate. Figure 1 shows a process the government implemented to help improve the usability of Web products. In that workflow, I particularly like the “Hire a Usability Specialist” step. Always a good idea, I’d say!

Figure 1—Usability.gov’s “Step-by-Step Usability Guide”
Usability.gov’s “Step-by-Step Usability Guide”

While the US government is trying to make the handling of its forms as easy as it can, bureaucracy is bureaucracy, and citizens struggle with government forms. Citizens struggle with government forms. How can an enterprise-software company help its customers to input data and process these forms efficiently and accurately? In my experience, many companies do a good job on helping customers and achieving accuracy, but most are not very efficient.

But enterprise organizations do work on processing government forms more efficiently. The faster these organizations can process forms, the more money they make. Hence, most of the software such organizations build focuses on inputting data into government forms, and they invest in training their employees to use that software.

Unfortunately, in their attempts to achieve greater efficiency, such companies rarely think about designing their software around the way their employees actually work. In my experience, this is where companies can discover potential opportunities for efficiencies. Once companies do make this shift in their thinking, they’re ready to adopt user-centered design practices. For those who are unfamiliar with user-centered design, it means observing a system’s users, then designing a solution that is based on those observations.

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Applying User-Centered Design

How can your company apply user-centered design, though? First, it’s essential that you observe users that touch every different step of the process. For the mortgage industry, that’s not just the data processors, but also loan officers or client-relations teams. It’s important to discover and understand the key user groups’ different workflows, including what tools they use and how they use them. Only then can you accurately assess what parts of the process you need to reconceive. Understanding how users approach the inevitable need for workarounds can give you insights into how you can help them by creating a better design solution.

I recently interviewed users working in the mortgage industry and conducted a standard survey of the equipment they kept around them when working on a loan. One user was listing items such as two monitors, a keyboard, a mouse, and so on. But, when she mentioned a calculator, I asked her about what exactly she used it for. Was it for calculating a fee? Why didn’t she use an application such as Excel? Surprisingly, she actually used the calculator to type in an account number because that was the best way she’d found of keeping track of what account she was working on. The takeaway: as a user navigates the system, persistently display the account number on which the user is currently working.

Once you’ve studied the users and understand their roles, where should you start on the design? While the answer depends somewhat on the user’s role, I normally start where the user starts. As you work through the user’s process, not only do you need to design for the task at hand, but also to accommodate the inevitable interruptions and additional communications they typically need to have with people in other roles. The best way to approach users’ varying situations is by consistently creating situational awareness and context.

Discovering Context

While it has been said that content is king, I tend to think of content as more the Prime Minister and context as President. When designing forms, UX designers must create a strong sense of context.

To achieve this, you need to listen to what the users say they need to see on their screen. Often, they’ll want to see a form and be able to interact with it. This can work, but forms inevitably change over time, so the UX designer needs to keep adaptable interactions in mind. What level of fidelity to the actual government form does the Web form actually need to have for users to achieve their goals? Making the actual form available in some way connects the users to what is familiar. Sometimes that is important. But, at other times, as long as users can follow a consistent path to the form, that is enough.

Connecting users to context by allowing them to interact with what is familiar and making sure their interactions follow the process that is typical for their role and meets their needs is key to creating efficient form input and processing software.

Recently, a colleague asked me whether providing context and making users aware of their current step in the process—that is, situational awareness—helps only new users. How would communicating context help more experienced users who are already familiar with the location of different data inputs? They already know what to look for, after all. Having done my user research, I was able to provide a quotation from an experienced user, who had thanked me for providing a clear context for situational awareness because “sometimes my eyes just get lost, even though I know what to look for."

What Design Approach Works? TurboTax

While enterprises create a lot of internal applications for inputting data into government forms, there also are a number of well-known consumer products that help users enter data into government forms. When UX designers are tackling this particular form-design challenge, they most frequently refer to the product TurboTax as a model of good design. “Make it like TurboTax” is a frequent client request. When I ask clients exactly what they mean by that, the typical response is: “You know, it walks you through it.”

Any hard feelings about TurboTax and Intuit’s relationship with the government aside—yes, that’s a thing—TurboTax does an excellent job of guiding users through the tax-form experience, as shown in Figure 2. It has good visual design and gets users to answer simple questions to accomplish their task. When more details are necessary, the program chunks the government form into clear groups of form fields that the user can easily tab through to enter data. Plus, it provides excellent situational awareness, so the user never becomes lost in the process.

Figure 2—TurboTax
TurboTax

TurboTax actually provides adequate context. When clients review my form designs, they inevitably say, “Oh, it’s like TurboTax!” At first, this statement confused me because the process for which I was designing a solution might have been nothing at all like TurboTax. But I then realized that they were acknowledging that my design provided very clear context—thus, helping to provide users a better understanding of what they need to accomplish. That’s what users want in such circumstances.

What Doesn’t Work?

In contrast, I’ll now describe an example of a screen from an application that was a competitor for a product I once worked on. (This is typical of the sorts of applications I get hired to redesign.) As shown in the sketch in Figure 3, the application’s screen comprises four areas:

  • action icons
  • top-level, tabbed navigation for the different states of the system
  • subnavigation comprising tabs for the different states within the selected state
  • data handling through a filtering capability
Figure 3—Rough sketch of the application
Rough sketch of the application

I made this sketch by copying the layout directly from an actual screen. Sure, it’s ugly—but that could just be my rough drawing. Why exactly does this screen not work for users?

First, the action icons are at the top of the screen. While that location does make users very aware of the available options, the icon are separated from the area in which the actions take place—in the fourth area beneath the action icons. So, whenever users need to perform an action, they have to break with their current mental model, look past the navigation, then focus on finding the action they need.

Then, there’s the fact that the tabbed navigation is broken up by system states. While this may be a legitimate way for developers to think about this, it essentially puts all of the work users must do into different sections that they must seek out. They might need to work on form fields under General, then jump to Notes to make notes, then go back to General to keep working, go to Actions to check on what someone else has done, make sure a document is available by looking under Doc, and so on. This creates a very disjointed experience for users.

All of this again comes down to workflow and context. This application may do well for the company selling it, because it focuses on handling particular kinds of forms. But if the company redesigned the application to conform to the users’ workflow and context, users could work much more efficiently and would be happier.

What Could Work? RocketMortgage and Better.com

Some companies are realizing the potential in the mortgage market and are beginning to put more data entry into the hands of their actual customers. QuickenLoans launched RocketMortgage in 2015, which is shown in Figure 4. RocketMortgage does an excellent job of walking users through the initial mortgage process. Its fields are clear, so it’s easy to enter data and tab through the fields. Its step-by-step process consistently demonstrates situational awareness. (Using this form may actually be a little too easy. I quickly reached the end of the process and almost refinanced my house on a whim.) The application design demonstrates a knowledge of the users’ context and workflows, so even more detailed forms provide an easy experience for the customer and, hopefully, for the loan agent as well.

Figure 4—RocketMortgage, by QuickenLoans
RocketMortgage, by QuickenLoans

Do you know how you can tell when something is in the Zeitgeist? When Google employees create a startup around it. Better.com, shown in Figure 5, is one such company that is trying to help people with the mortgage process, which is all about filling out government forms.

Figure 5—Better.com
Better.com

While this application appears to be similar to RocketMortgage, but it does not have the situational awareness of its competitor. Because Better.com did not provide the necessary context, in combination with its asking for personal information a bit too early, the application put me off completing the process. This could be a bit of a stumbling block for them. However, from what I’ve seen of Better.com so far, the forms look good, which is a start.

Conclusion

Government forms are tricky beasts. Whole industries have been created to help people navigate them. The people working in those industries don’t like government forms any better than the rest of us. So, if form designers can make others’ lives better, we’ll also be making our own lives better. How can we achieve that?

  1. Study the users.
  2. Design software that follows users’ workflows.
  3. Provide context for the forms in whatever way is best for the users’ workflows.

By following these steps, the enterprise and consumer companies that implement software to help users fill out and process government forms can discover greater efficiencies and make their employees and customers happier. And maybe we’ll all be a little happier when dealing with our government’s bureaucracy—or, at least, feel a bit more tolerant of it. 

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Senior Interaction Designer & UX Researcher at BlinkUX

Seattle, Washington, USA

Jonathan EvansJonathan follows his passions for interaction design and cognitive psychology to build connections between user research and user-centered design (UCD), especially research and design with a focus on children. At Ignite Seattle, he spoke about the inapplicability of UX principles to children. He continues to be active in this field of study. Prior to joining Blink in 2012, Jonathan worked on projects for diverse organizations, including Autodesk, Classmates.com, BP, CBS, the FBI, Sony, University of Melbourne’s Trinity College, and the University of Virginia (UVA). While at UVA, he received a Master of Science in Systems and Information Engineering, focusing on Human Factors. His thesis explored the removal of errors in audio-book recordings for blind and dyslexic people, mostly children. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Swarthmore College. When not at work, Jonathan goofs around with his wife, gets pounced on by his two daughters, and gets walked by his pup.  Read More

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