In collaboration with Taylor Greenberg Goldy, Jake Schonberger and Mengxi Tan

Master in Design Engineering Collaborative Design Engineering Studio II

Harvard University

Feb 2019 - May 2019

streamline form filling

The US benefit system is there to support the lives of thousands who struggle to provide for their families. The application process should be easy, but in reality, it requires a massive amount of research into what you qualify for, filling out of complex forms, scheduling appointments, and locating the correct offices to go to. 20 websites, 126 pages and 67 hours later, you might end up receiving the benefits you qualify for. But, it doesn’t need to be this way. inForm is a website that serves as a platform for low-income benefit enrollment. Using our platform, users will be able to learn what benefits they might be eligible for that they aren’t already involved in and pre-fill all documents needed for the pre-enrollment stages, interview prep guides, and maps of where to go to finish the in-person enrollment.

providing socio-economic mobility by making benefit adoption easier

PROBLEM

According to the Mass Legal Services, roughly 740,000 households in Massachusetts qualify for low income benefits, but are not fully enrolled. In dollar amount, it means $93,000,000 unclaimed potential benefits per month in MA alone.

PROCESS

After weeks of research, we came to the conclusion that this benefit gap in enrollment is due to 1) the scary and complex process to figure out the potential benefits one may qualify for and 2) the complicated benefit enrollment procedure (form-filling, interview, providing proofs, renew enrollment) one need to go through after the eligibility screening.

SOLUTION

As inForm, our goal is to provide socio-economic mobility by making benefit adoption easier. Our mission is to increase benefit adoption and provide the low income community with opportunities for socio economic mobility. We build accessible services for the people. We facilitate government value. We are non-partisan, but not neutral. 

THE USERS

Residents of Massachusetts

Low income households

Caring for 1 + dependent

Unaware of the benefits

Spends on a monthly basis

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THE BENEFITS

We chose to focus on the seven major benefits in Massachusetts: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Healthy Incentives Program (HIP), Massachusetts Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (MLIHEAP), Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP), Massachusetts Earned Income Tax Credit (MEITC), Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC) and Women, Infants & Children (WIC).

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THE STAKEHOLDERS WE INTERACTED WITH

ECONOMIC STAKEHOLDERS

 

Office of the Mayor (Boston)

Danny Green | Deputy Chief

 

Mayor's Office of Women Advancement

Megan Costello | Executive Director

 

Economic Mobility Lab (Mayor's Office)

Jason Ewas | Lab Director

Vaibhav Sabharwal | Fellow

Alexandra Valdez | Engagement Director

LOW INCOME COMMUNITIES

 

Christ Life Church Food Pantry

Francis | Food Bank Director

 

Fordham Low Income Housing Group

Eric Stern | Landlord & Community Leader

 

Foofii: Fighting Food Insecurity

Tariana Little | Founder & CEO

COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT GROUPS

Cambridge Public Library

Reinhard Engels | Innovation & Tech Manager

 

Boston Children's Hospital

Joel Hudgins | Practitioner, Prof of Pediatrics

 

Harvard Equitable Tax Initiative

Rebekah Holtz | HLS Chapter Director

THE TAKEAWAYS

> Building outside the current system is faster and much more impactful

> The low income community is generally open to collaboration

> The benefit process is so confusing people rarely understand what is available

> The low income community is a tight network with high smartphone usage rate

> Libraries and community centers are seen as safe places

> Hospitals are a good touchpoint since 85% of families bring kids for checkups

THE CURRENT USER JOURNEY

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THE IDEA

inForm is divided into two easy steps, Eligibility & Pre-Enrollment, which provides you with all the information you’ll need to enroll in benefits.

 

> During the Eligibility step, we’ll ask you 8 simple questions & show you which benefits you’re eligible for and how much you might receive. 

> During the Pre-Enrollment, we will guide you through our Masterform, which is a single form that is generated based on the benefits you are eligible for. We’ll use this consolidated information to pre-fill all the forms you might need. We will THEN generate an enrollment packet that contains personalized pre-filled forms, planners, & maps to your benefit centers. We’ll also send automated reminders to alert you when benefit providers need more information or it’s time to re apply.

THE INTERFACE

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THE PROTOTYPES

THE DESIGN PROCESS

INFORMATION DESIGN

In the information design stage, we mapped out the information flow and modules of our system. For the first step of eligibility determination, the user will input answers to the eight eligibility questions, which then goes through the eligibility calculator decision module to create an output list of eligible benefits and potential amounts. The system will then generate a custom application masterform based on the specific benefits this user is qualified for. For the second step of pre-enrollment, the application information will recycle information from the eligibility round, and ask the user for additional data to fill in the application masterform. Finally, the masterform will auto-populate the actual benefit application pdf form to provide users with a filled package in the end. See below the system flow chart.

To build out the information system, we collected eligibility and enrollment information from the official websites [3] of the seven major Massachusetts benefits and built out a custom database. We were able to narrowed from 22 to 8 questions in the eligibility process, and from 58 to 17 in the pre-enrollment form filling process, reducing 2/3 of the redundant process.

STEP 1 : ELIGIBILITY

USER INPUT 1
ELIGIBILITY CALCULATOR
BENEFIT 1: $x
BENEFIT 2: $y
BENEFIT 3: $z

input

decision

output

information

Auto-generate based on eligibility

Database auto-populate to PDF

USER INPUT 2
APPLICATION MASTERFORM
BENEFIT 2 PACKAGE
BENEFIT 1 PACKAGE

STEP 2 : PRE-ENROLLMENT

INTERFACE DESIGN

Based on the information design structure, we implemented the user interface design in Figma. In a repeated process of prototyping, wireframing and checking-in with stakeholders, we iterated and improved our interface design for more than ten rounds. We transitioned from mobile to website as a platform to make our tool more accessible to the users, adjusted specific language usage(e.g. from “your form” to “my form”, from “encryption” to “protect”) to give a sense of inclusion and reflect the habit of our users, and updated UX flow to guide users more clearly throughout the process.

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TECHNICAL BUILD

We implemented the technical build for the eligibility calculator using HTML, CSS and Javascript for the scope this project. The final project is consisted of 1540 Lines, 116 commits, 11 branches, 9,959 additions and 1,250 deletions.

Functional prototype is available for testing at: https://bit.ly/2XASqht

Complete code can be viewed at: https://github.com/mengxit/nudgeplus

The final technical build reflects the exact decision making steps of the seven major benefits to reflect the eligibility and qualification value status. The eight input variables will be passed onto the seven benefit functions once user finishes submitting, and calculation will be finished and displayed within 0.5 second. For user testing, we added encrypted logging as a feature to record the inputs, outputs, behaviors and access platforms of our users in real-time safely.

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SOFT LAUNCH - USER TESTING PROCESS

Throughout the design process, we consistently released different versions of the benefit calculator to friends, families and stakeholders to conduct usability & accuracy tests. We went through roughly 4 rounds of testing before conducting a soft launch with our actual users.

Once our calculator was built in a way that could support users and was generating benefits accurately enough, we approached our stakeholders once more and asked them to help us distribute our product. Our soft launch led to a limited and controlled set of in-target users who we were able to draw important insights and impact calculations from.

IMPACT

When thinking about how to measure impact, we looked at the potential for life & societal improvement from our users perspective, and from the government & economic perspective. The goal of our product is to a) provide a nudge to the low income users who might be eligible for benefits and b) provide those same users a way to act on their nudge and follow through with the application. We were able to implement a version of the nudge portion of the product, in the form of a potential benefit calculator.

 

The aggregated data that we were able to collect through the calculator, gave us enough information to understand a couple economic indicators of our users (Monthly income, household make-up, personal savings and estimated eligibility per benefit)

With this information, we’re able to understand the potential impact of the benefits we educate our users about on their monthly budgets - and in turn - on their ability to support for their families.

According to our user data, the typical users report about $708/mo in income with an average of 1.5 children. On the benefit side, we were able to estimate that these people are generally eligible for $856 in government benefits, which breaks down to $188 in food related benefits, $518 in housing, $73 in childcare and $71 in utilities related benefits. 

Additionally, combining this information with economic benefit indicators, like those used by the USDA, we can gain an understanding of the potential impact of the collection of any single dollar driven by our platform. From an economic perspective, we used the USDA Food Aid National Input/Output Multiplier (FANIOM) to estimate what the potential impact on the local economy we could drive if our users were awarded the benefits we estimated them eligible for. 

 

It suggested that for every $1 in food related benefits adopted by citizens, $1.79 are put back into the economy.

Thus, we could say that for each of our users, if their benefits were fully adopted, they would contribute over $1,500 in economic stimulus. Furthermore, if 1% of our target population (around 7,400 people) were to use our product, that number could rise to around $11M in economic stimulus per month.

FUTURE STEPS

Assuming we’d continue working on making inForm a functioning product, we outlined the appropriate next steps that would allow us to test and iterate in a way that would make the product better, and could expand our impact. We’ve outlined those steps below:

MENTORSHIP PROGRAM

During our research, we learned from many stakeholders that the work of people who have already gone through the process, as well as social workers and charity workers, put a great deal of time into helping low income citizens get the benefits they deserve. We’d plan to set up a mentorship program that connects users going through the process for the first time with either social workers or members of the community who feel comfortable with the process and would like to contribute to helping others. The programs goal is to ensure people going through the process for the first time have a smooth and comfortable experience, while having someone to lean on for support. 

ADOPTION AND ACCESS

Adoption refers to growth through our stakeholders and entry points of hospitals, clinician offices, community centers and libraries. Access refers to expanding our product to be as accessible as possible, from language options to supplying internet access programs through different stakeholders.

DIRECT APPLICATION

Our current product provides users with an understanding of the benefits they’re eligible for, and the materials needed to apply to those benefits. The next step for the product would be to fully integrate with the benefit providers through API’s and technical integrations. These integrations would allow us to apply to the benefits on our users behalf, and continuing to limit the amount of time and effort needed from our users in order to receive their benefits.

CREDIT LIST

Mayor Office of Policy, Danny Green, Deputy Chief

Boston Economic Mobility Lab, Jason Ewaz, Lab Director

Boston Economic Mobility Lab, Alexandra Valdez, Director of Engagement

Boston Economic Mobility Lab, Vaibhav Sabharwal, Lab Fellow

Mayor Office of Women Advancement, Megan Costello, Executive Director

Foofii, Tariana Little, Founder and CEO

Fordh Low Income Housing Group, Eric Stern, Landlord and Community Leader

Loeb Fellow, Andrea Reimer

Christ Life Church Food Pantry, Francis

Cambridge Public Library, Reinhard Engels, Manager of Innovation and Technology

Boston Children’s Hospital, Joel Hudgins

Harvard Equitable Tax Initiative, Rebekah Holtz, HLS chapter director

Harvard Human Computer Interaction Reading Group

Harvard Graduate School of Design

Harvard John A.Paulson School of Engineering of Applied Sciences

REFERENCES

[1] Mass Legal Services, 2019, It’s time to close the Massachusetts “SNAP Gap” ! 

https://www.masslegalservices.org/content/its-time-close-massachusetts-snap-gap

[2]Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2018, A Closer Look at Who Benefits from SNAP

https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/a-closer-look-at-who-benefits-from-snap-state-by-state-fact-sheets#Massachusetts

[3]Official Website of the seven major MA benefits 

SNAP: https://www.mass.gov/snap-benefits-formerly-known-as-food-stamps

TAFDC:https://www.mass.gov/service-details/check-tafdc-eligibility-and-how-to-apply

MEITC: https://www.mass.gov/service-details/earned-income-tax-credit-eitc

HIP: https://www.mass.gov/service-details/healthy-incentives-program-hip-for-clients

MRVP: https://www.mass.gov/service-details/massachusetts-rental-voucher-program-mrvp

MLIHEAP: https://www.mass.gov/service-details/learn-about-low-income-home-energy-assistance-program-liheap

WIC: https://www.mass.gov/women-infants-children-wic-nutrition-program