Simple Changes Can Make a Big Difference for Clients Accessing Government Benefits

Our work with Pennsylvania to implement user experience and user interface changes shows that innovation can be easier to implement than it might seem
  • Senior Program Manager,
    Code for America
  • Special Assistant in the Office of Income Maintenance,
    PA Department of Human Services
an illustration of a mobile benefits application on a phone

When someone in Pennsylvania needs access to food assistance programs like SNAP, they’ll often find themselves in front of an online tool called COMPASS. For many people, COMPASS makes applying, managing, and renewing their benefits simple—but not all communities have equal access to the tool. Increasingly, more people own smartphones than desktop or laptop computers—and smartphone dependency to get online is more prevalent among households with low incomes and among Black and Hispanic adults. 

Recently, Code for America partnered with the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (PA DHS) to analyze COMPASS usage and found that phone users were less likely to start and successfully complete a benefits application than those who were using a desktop computer. That means the lack of mobile accessibility for a benefits management tool can create a major equity gap—but also presents an opportune moment for the state agency to adapt and better center their clients’ needs. 

That opportune moment might seem like it calls for a daunting amount of work. But one of the key things proved by PA DHS’ work on COMPASS is that small user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) tweaks—while sometimes hard to identify—can make a big difference in a client’s experience with a government service. The hardest part is identifying what needs to and can be changed.

Making public benefits delivery more human-centered

One learning that PA DHS grasped early in our project to make the safety net more accessible to all Pennsylvanians: technological improvements aren’t just about keeping up with industry standards, but keenly understanding the reality of how people use technology to get online. We knew that 56% of all traffic to the COMPASS homepage came through mobile phones—and that 90% of phone users dropped off between the homepage and application start page compared to 61% of desktop users. 

PA DHS wanted to know why. From surveying clients and exploring the tool, we learned that the COMPASS website was not built in a way that makes it easy to use on a mobile device—for example, the mobile website doesn’t have all the same features as the desktop site, but accessing the full version of the site on a phone means scaling it so small that the information is difficult to read and requires significant navigation dexterity. 

With this information, making the website mobile-first became a top priority.

Using a phone, you can only see about one-third of the page due to the warning at the top that you can not exit out of.
COMPASS client

There were three primary recommendations to improve the online benefits application experience on COMPASS: make the website features more accessible on mobile devices, reduce the client burden by reformatting questions, and improve language access (especially because Spanish speakers were more likely to access the site via mobile phone—85% compared to 55% of English speakers). By lifting up specific client feedback and our heuristics assessment of the existing COMPASS pages, we identified specific solutions and practices to help address client challenges and burdens to successfully complete their online application.

some UX writing best practices

We illustrated technical requirements to build a mobile-first website and how data and research can help PA DHS continuously improve the user experience. We looked at existing content, such as application questions, through a plain language lens and centered on user needs to process and understand the information in a clear and easy way. We demonstrated the “how and why” language access practices can create a more equitable and meaningful experience for every native language speaker.

some UX writing best practices

Partners, not vendors

Traditional contract work between a state agency and vendor often focuses on products—what can we build for you?—rather than practices—what can we teach you how to build yourself? Unlike with a traditional vendor/agency relationship, we approached the challenge of COMPASS mobile accessibility as an opportunity to prove that the state could make a lot of effective, simple changes to their systems in-house. Discussions to learn about client pain points and COMPASS reforms turned into active brainstorms for PA DHS to remove their own blockers—sometimes it was as simple as “That question could be reworded so it’s less confusing” or as big as “We should change how that data is collected, analyzed, and used to inform decisions.” 

The organizational culture at PA DHS began to shift as they thought about human-centered strategies and solutions in a different way. Effective (UX) and (UI) changes can be hard to spot when you’re used to looking at a system from the same perspective each day. But the team at PA DHS had practice shifting to meet the needs of their clients before our project began. From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state modified a lot of processes to operate in a new normal. They knew that utilizing technological improvements to improve inefficient systems, while certainly useful, is just one part of a larger movement to shift the delivery of benefits to be more responsive to the direct needs of clients. PA DHS recognized that once they identified simple UX and UI changes that would improve the client experience, it was easier to prioritize and implement those changes than expected. They just needed the data and tools that could inform their path forward.

You can find people who can do tech, but it’s not as easy to find those who can translate and illustrate the problem and solution.
Tom Smith, DHS Bureau of Policy Special Assistant

Simple changes can make big impacts

DHS’ embrace of human-centered design and data practices exemplifies the idea that building a better client experience that meets the realities of today’s digital world often starts with relatively simple changes that make a big difference for clients. Building intentional, accessible experiences for people who rely on government services requires a willingness from government to expand their internal capacities and experiment with best practices from the tech and design world that center client needs. 

And at Code for America, we’re going to continue to work with state agencies to transform the country’s social safety net from the ground up—meaning where it all starts, in government service delivery offices. It’s in those offices, where public servants are designing the experience of applying for and receiving benefits and services, that we can work together to reduce barriers so that all communities have equitable access to the benefits they need.

Code for America recently announced a multiyear initiative to expand our work with states to transform America’s social safety net. The cornerstone of this effort is direct partnership with government agencies and community organizations to reimagine the delivery of essential safety net benefits, such as food assistance and health care. Do you have a project you’d like to partner with us on? Get in touch.

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