Project Re:form is a partnership between the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services and Civilla, a Detroit-based social innovation studio. The project aims to redesign the experience of applying for public benefits in the state of Michigan, starting with form DHS-1171, or the mandatory first step for the more than two million residents who receive state aid. The application was nearly 40 pages long, contained over 1,000 questions, and was the longest form of its kind in the country. The length and breadth was a hurdle for residents and a burden for state administrators to process.
The DHS-1171 is a general application that includes a filing form, household details, income and assets, and expenses. Supplemental forms include program details on food assistance, cash assistance, childcare, Medicaid, and state emergency relief.
Civilla was able to hit the ground running with months of field research, which allowed them to create a working prototype. However, they needed assistance in completing another iteration of the form and actualizing the feedback they had accumulated. We engaged with the project to help identify ways to reduce the visual complexity of the form as well as improve the overall experience of caseworkers and applicants.
Create a clear path to accessing critical assistance programs for Michigan residents
Humanize that path to ensure residents are empowered to access the supports they are eligible for
Simplify currently complex process to allow staff and customers to work together in creating positive health and social impact
All in all, the redesign had to follow the tenants of being short, simple, and relevant.
September 2016 - November 2016
Field research, design thinking
Service design, visual design
Pen & paper, Illustrator, InDesign
Our introduction to the project was a download on what Civilla had learned thus far about the history of the DHS-1171. This included how both applicants and caseworkers interact with the form, and how the form works with the system at large. Civilla shared that:
There is no clear path through the system. It constantly feels like a series of gridlocks and chaos that often leaves the applicants terrified and lost.
The system is dehumanizing — people feel like number and data rather than humans. This is due not only to the fact that numbers like income and assets are the biggest contributors to assistance decisions, but also because caseworkers are too busy to treat them otherwise.
MDHHS feels like a fraud prevention organization, not a service provider. Applicants are often heavily questioned, which makes them feel as though they are guilty until proven innocent. It’s “us vs. them” — caseworkers carry all the power.
Civilla helped us understand not only how applicants feel about the form, but also how caseworks are in similarly difficult situations (the average caseworker’s caseload has increased 150% since 1999, up from an average of 300 to 750). They also helped us understand which questions absolutely had to be included in the form due to federal regulations (about 30%).
Field Research + Immersive Learning
Field research was absolutely critical to the success of the project. We needed to understand how caseworkers worked through their enormous caseloads, and to do so we needed to meet with them in their work environments. Here we could notice the “IRL microinteractions” — little shortcuts written down in notes, how a caseworker visibly reacted to a part in the form, or even how they physically situated themselves when interacting with the form on their desk.
We knew that the form needed to make applicants feel as though their needs are actually being meant, which immediately translated to a service design mindset. It was important for us to see the entire picture of the Michigan state benefits assistance program, including the physical layout of the offices.
We spent a full day at the MDHHS office in Eaton County and spoke to six caseworkers. We asked about the form, but we also wanted to know more about the system at large.
Synthesis & Analysis
We started from the grittiest details and worked our way up. We downloaded the interviews person by person, making sure in our re-telling of the interviews to ask thoughtful questions and allow the interviewer to share other observations and thoughts that may not have made it into their notes. We then clustered those into themes, always working organically — we wanted our entire Post-It wall to flow from theme to theme in order to tell the entire narrative of our research.
We then took those themes and paired them with our learnings about the functionality of the form itself, which we were able to once again group into themes about how the form had to change.
This allowed us to create a powerful foundation for us to create “How Might We” questions that were able to get to the heart of questions surrounding type, color, tone, and layout. After some intense theme-ing, we landed on the following questions:
How might we…
Give breath to the form emotionally and structurally?
Use the psychology of color to make applicants feel safe?
Bring seriousness to the form without losing a service mindset?
Encourage all parties involved to be positively proactive throughout this process?
Graphically and verbally communicate thoughtfulness and efficiency?
Allow the applicant to tell their money story?
Create mindful visuals to enhance and expand contextual understanding?
Surface the effort and spirit of the form through typography?
Utilize thoughtful marketing language that is digestible and actionable?
Create an intentional experience that feels seamless between paper and digital?
Although the “How Might We” questions gave us direction for production, there were some things that we knew we had to accomplish in our redesign.
The form had to not only look quick, but be quick too. Seeing an enormous stack of papers is the first step towards feeling like a failure. In the same regard, the form needed to feel human, not like something that was “out to get me.”
The form must be able to fit as much writing as possible — when people ran out of lines, they felt like they would not be qualified. The form also needed to be guided in some way, which helps people not be stressed out and feel like they actually know the answer to these already daunting questions.
We already had a prototype to work with that included federally required questions. We just needed to figure out the best way to communicate that information visually and structurally.
After redesigning some of the required information into outlined boxes and pairing it with color and iconography, we tested as many configurations of the information as possible by cutting the sections out and gluing them back down. This allowed us to get really conceptual with our form structures and test them immediately, even reformulate them on the spot if necessary.
Testing & Iterating
After nailing down the structure and pace of the form, we sent them back to Civilla who could in turn test them in field and give us feedback from caseworkers and applicants. This process was as rapid as possible, with our team sending updated pages at least three times a day.
Color + Type
Using the findings, our design team used color and typography to create a more empathetic and less time-consuming experience for applicants while still meeting the requirements for processing. We redesigned the overall experience of completing the form, making it less intimidating and much less lengthy. Our core choices lay in five strategic visual decisions:
Bright, competing colors that would help signify to both the applicant and the caseworker which section they were currently in and how the supplemental forms related to the general application.
A typeface that is not only easy to read, but easy to look at too. Akkurat is a workhorse in being able to thoughtfully communicate different ideas by the starkness of its various weights, thus being able to communicate ideas clearly and beautifully.
Large margins on top and left side of the form that allowed the form to breathe and feel less burdensome.
Right side margins dedicated for in-line “tooltips” that would act very similarly to digital tooltips. These tips would help the applicant understand what is being asked in the corresponding question.
A text box structure that allows the applicant to actually communicate. These boxes were color coordinated to the corresponding section, but were also slightly opaque. This allowed the boxes to not feel too constrained and they allowed for us to include some guiding text within the boxes. The color was grounded by a solid rule on the bottom, which helped guide writing. We also rounded the top corners, which subtly allowed a more friendly tone to be communicated to the applicant.
The total overhaul of form DHS-1171 allowed us to shorten it by 80%. After a pilot program in 2017, the form was rolled out statewide in January 2018. It has won the Gold - Design for Society Award at the International Design Awards and the Gold - Government Experience Award at Driven x Design.
The entire form can be viewed here.