Why did we do it this way, when after even a few months I realized how unsuccessful a written process was for our clients? Primarily fear of legal retribution, bluntly. The program was litigious and we needed to cover ourselves to prove we were doing the job, even at the cost of our clients. We had production quotas to meet, and written communication was used as a means to obfuscate those deadlines to our advantage. Often our letters were sent within days or less of deadlines, so that clients would receive them after the deadline passed and we could keep the appearance that the process was rolling smoothly.
Enter User Experience
I didn’t know it at the time, but what I had identified so early in my career from this spectacularly horrible system was fundamentally a UX problem. We did not consider the user through our process, in this case both the client and the case worker, but only the appearance of success. Our superiors didn’t care how we got to the terminal value, just that we got there and kept going.
I didn’t accept this premise, not just because it caused unnecessary pain to both myself and my colleagues, but most importantly, it threatened deep consequences to my clients. The stress it must have caused countless families, for whom housing via this program was a major source of security. Without it, most of our clients would likely have been thrown into homelessness at some point. The threat of loss was very real here, and our process made it more so.
A Solution to Fit the System
What could I do? The system was so entrenched in the existing process that it would take more than myself to change it fundamentally. But I could try.
I identified the major pain points in the process we had: communication, both written and verbal.
There was no way to skip the process of sending letters and packages entirely, but if we could make them more legible and easier to complete, then perhaps we would reduce the number of errors in the submissions we received. So I redesigned the packages we sent, which were subsequently employed by the entire staff. I removed unnecessary questions, combined questions requesting similar information, simplified the language, and shortened the packages significantly. I made it a practice of following up with every form of written communication on the phone as well, as that was overwhelmingly the most effective form of communication. They were put at ease to know that there was someone who responded on the other side, who’d be able to answer questions and meet with them if necessary, and who had their interests at heart too.
We also had no way of tracking our communication with our clients, so I designed a template to do so. It helped us remember when we had last contacted a client, and keep following up so that we didn’t get to a termination state. It also helped with our superiors’ concern with litigation, since we tracked our communication so clearly.
Finally, a note on the fax machines. This was an internal fix, but a deeply necessary one. We were never getting rid of the faxing during my time there, but the forms we had been using were terrible for the medium. The font degraded quickly when faxed, making the completed information all but illegible and caused a significant waste of paper. So I increased the font size, ensured all forms were a single page, and simplified the design so to minimize the loss of integrity when sent.
The initiatives I started were not part of my job description, but they were necessary, in my opinion, to improving the system. Only in looking back have I realized that what I’d done was essentially the role of a UX Designer — fix the system through better design. I was an untutored designer and it was by no means perfect, but I’d like to think it was a shade better than it had been before.
So, where is empathy?
Well, my Newtonian moment began in empathy. Remember when I said I grew up in middle class suburbia? I hadn’t the first idea how to engage with clients whose life experiences differed so fundamentally from my own. My initial thought was to distance myself from them, to digitize the process, to reduce and eliminate verbal and in-person communication. Wouldn’t that be better for everyone? It was how I liked to communicate, after all. Only when I realized that I was not my client, and started to listen to what my clients really needed, did I understand that my initial solutions wouldn’t work at all.
Only when I realized that I was not my client, and started to listen to what my clients really needed, did I understand that my initial solutions wouldn’t work at all.
My clients preferred face to face and verbal communication because it was easier to communicate their needs and often their only means of doing so. It’s a shameful and hidden reality of our education system that so many exit with only a cursory reading ability, but I witnessed it firsthand. Additionally, many clients did not have access to computers or the internet. This was a foreign concept to me at the time, and perhaps has changed in the intervening 10 years, but at the time was and should still be a required consideration for anyone who deals with government systems that need to be accessible to all.
The changes I made were informed by these revelations. Even though I couldn’t radically change the system, I tried to make the system work better within the confines of my requirements.