Good design is good business in government: design partnership with the New York City Department of Social Services

By | 7 minute read | March 19, 2018

With 42 design studios around the world, and 1,600 formally trained designers, IBM is tackling the most difficult challenges facing our customers, applying human-centered design and agile development practices across our products and services, allowing us to greatly enhance the value we provide to our customers and their clients.

IBM Watson Health is focused on applying these practices to our work of helping government organizations improve the way in which they engage with their clients.

How can we improve the engagement experience?

The New York City Department of Social Services (DSS) serves three million vulnerable New Yorkers.  The agency has a workforce of close to 18,000 and delivers a wide range of services from public assistance and employment services to a large homeless shelter system.

In the DSS Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) alone, caseworkers process close to 70,000 SNAP applications and recertifications per month. Faced with rising caseloads and static resources in the SNAP program, the agency decided to invest in a new service delivery model, shifting the client interaction from a heavily bricks and mortar in-person experience to a more self-directed service model using new digital channels, including an online portal which leverages IBM technology. The portal is called ACCESS HRA (AHRA).  The DSS goal is to provide an improved client experience and to reduce foot traffic at their service centers.

In addition to online applications for SNAP, the AHRA portal allows a client to view over one hundred real-time case-related data points including case status, account balances and e-notices.

“The efforts at DSS have been very successful.  Seventy-five percent of SNAP applications are submitted online and foot traffic in the offices has reduced by thirty percent.  

Throughout this process, we gained some valuable insights, and became acutely aware that in order to fully achieve our goals, we needed to increase the usability of our digital tools and needed to address the fact that the web portal…did not work well on a mobile device.”

Lauren Aaronson, Deputy Commissioner, Office of Business Process Innovation, DSS

A Public-Private Partnership

The AHRA portal leverages IBM Universal Access, a social enterprise management platform that is used to connect people to social services across five countries in eight different languages. Government services accessed with Universal Access run the gamut from disability benefits to income support to food assistance to health insurance. The challenge for the IBM Watson Health Government team was to solve the pain points observed by DSS, and to do so in a scalable way that would maximize the value delivered across our customer base.

We engaged in a public-private partnership with DSS. Together, we would simultaneously solve the City’s problems and evolve the underlying IBM offering for the many customers we serve. DSS invited us to use their PC banks, available at 15 service centers, as user feedback labs to help our multi-disciplinary team gain a deep understanding of people’s needs as they interact with government online.

And so began an innovative engagement model between IBM, government and the partner ecosystem that services it.

Grounded in Core Values

Producing an end user product that compares positively with other modern digital services that government clients interact with on a daily basis is an important part of convincing people that a tool is trustworthy and effective.  Good design creates an ease of use and professionalism that clients deserve and expect, especially when they are at their most vulnerable. Using your phone to navigate a website that is not designed for mobile use is no longer an option and is fairly rare. The experience can be quite jarring when it happens. Mobile devices are fast-becoming the standard mechanism for accessing the internet within the DSS target population. In fact, we know that thirty percent of the applications submitted from outside DSS centers are done from a mobile device.

At IBM, we knew that in order to achieve our mission of delivering value at scale through design, we would need to push the boundaries, not just in terms of product design, but also in the way we engage with our customers and deliver software. So we agreed on some core values that would bring us to a new level of software development:

  • Observe, listen, understand
  • Build, measure, learn
  • Influence over control

Observe, listen, understand

We sent a diverse multi-disciplinary team (product manager, designers and architects) – to New York, and we spent time with people as they went through the process of applying for benefits. We observed, we listened, and we very clearly understood their needs as a result.

So what did we learn?

All kinds of people find themselves asking for help. Some don’t speak English, some have low literacy levels, others have tired and hungry children with them who they had to drag across town to get to the service center. However, what we found was that despite their diversity, their needs are relatively simple.

  • They need a simple, clear path to help.
  • They need multi-channel access. They need to be able to choose the channel they use to interact with the agency including: smartphone, desktop, in-person, and paper.
  • They need to know upfront what is involved in the application process – how long is this going to take? Can I save and resume later, or should I not start at all if I can’t stay for the duration?
  • When they’re done with the online application, they need to know what comes next in the overall path to help.

Understanding all of these things, which become obvious only when you take the time to sit with the user, would dictate the kind of user experience we needed to design. There is nothing as compelling as spending time with the users to motivate our product team to deliver that experience.

Hosting the designers in our centers was eye opening for them.  Feedback that we had provided over the years that lived on lists teed up as possible enhancements became real as they watched clients struggle through the application. Simple things like the size of the clickable space inside a radio button or the need to reduce text through better use of iconography became very real.

For instance, we learned that close to 100 percent of the time a client will ask a facilitator if their submission is successful, until you add a giant green check mark and an exclamation point!”

Lauren Aaronson, Deputy Commissioner, DSS

Build, measure, learn

Armed with user research insights, we quickly built a prototype, which we brought back to New York for feedback. We then iterated on that prototype to tweak and adjust the user experience as we progressed the solution.

The DSS team (a mix of public and private sector business and tech experts) also came to our design studio where together we co-designed elements of the new experience.

Taking this approach has resulted in a very tight collaboration, with public and private teams working shoulder to shoulder throughout.

Influence over Control

The fact that we deliver a product that is then customized by customers and partners is a complicating factor for us as a product organization. For our customers, customization is king and flexibility within that customization process is key to a successful solution. So, we needed to ensure that the customization capabilities were flexible, modern and easy while at the same time, ensuring that the well-researched design of the product flowed through to the custom solution. How could we influence but not control that custom experience?

The solution for us was to build a design system that incorporates government-specific design principles and guidelines as well as templates, examples and a set of components (think of them as Lego blocks) that can be assembled to build the custom experience. And, unlike many other design systems used mainly for in-house development, we deliver that design system along with the product for our customers and partners to use, achieving that influence over control.

Where are we now?

Investing in good design practices and taking a lean, agile approach to development, within the context of a public-private partnership, meant that just months after defining the first prototype of our ideas, we have designed the next generation of Universal Access. This next generation product has already been validated by its users, and later this year, a simple, modern, responsive version of AHRA will be released to New Yorkers.

From our perspective, the design system makes good design scalable across our implementation and accessible to all.”

Lauren Aaronson, Deputy Commissioner, DSS

“Critical programs like SNAP serve people facing very difficult times, so it’s vital that those programs are easy to access. We’re very proud to work with Watson Health Government to bring accessible online service to New Yorkers in need with ACCESS HRA.”

Steven Banks, Commissioner, DSS

And we, at IBM Watson Health, are proud to serve NYC DSS and their clients, and excited to deliver a product that delivers value at pace and at scale, making good design accessible to all of our customers and the clients they serve across the globe.

At IBM, the methods we use evolve but the message stays the same: good design is good business.


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