CalFresh

Role

User Research, User Stories, Journey Mapping, Service Blueprinting, User Flows, Prototyping, Visual Design

duratioN

2 weeks

Year

2021

/01 Background

Rethinking Food Stamps in the Digital Age

Known federally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), CalFresh provides monthly food benefits to individuals and families with low-income and provides economic benefits to communities.

The program distributes monthly benefits via an EBT card and allows households to stretch their monthly food budgets to include healthy options such as fruits, vegetables, and other nutritious foods.

But it's not perfect.

An estimated 500k income-eligible households leave CalFresh each year

Participants are 6x more likely to leave the program during months when paperwork is required

Since 2014, almost 20% of households have left CalFresh the first month they were required to submit paperwork for an eligibility reassessment

/02 The Problem

The Issue with CalFresh

These statistics painted a picture of a program severely challenged by churn. In the context of public benefit programs, churn-rate is used to measure "unnecessary or unproductive cycling of families and individuals off and back on benefit coverage" – a result of public programs' requirements for periodic reassessment of benefit eligibility.

These assessments entail interactions between state agencies and families. My hypothesis was that opportunities for problems would arise mainly due to a lack of required action during the window in which it must occur.

My goal was to understand the "why" behind this lack of action and determine what I could do to improve it.

CalFresh benefits are critical for so many, and lengthy and burdensome bureaucratic processes should not get in the way of people being able to put food on the table.
- Scott Wiener, California State Senator
/03 Discovery

Deeper Insight

Equally important to grappling with the issue of churn was understanding the human beings behind it. A study on the federal SNAP program by the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance drew out a new theory that churn is composed of three different behaviors:

  1. Late Recertifiers: those aware of the recertification deadline but are late in renewing their benefits.
  2. True Churners: those unaware of recertification and discovered their benefit had lapsed when they tried to use it
  3. Pausers: those intentionally and voluntarily “pausing” their participation in SNAP

Understanding the CalFresh Recipients

My goal was to better understand the first two types of CalFresh recipients – those unintentionally dropping out of the program, who would ultimately also be the same groups to have to re-enroll immediately after dropping off. This allowed me to better grasp the CalFresh application and reassessment processes, pinpointing where and why users were experiencing frustrations or simply unconvinced by their own cost-benefit analysis of the steps required to recertify.

User Insight

I turned to one of the internet's largest communities of foodstamp recipients and those assisting them – r/foodstamps – to analyze questions pertaining to CalFresh recertifications. What was notable were the sheer amount of inquiries around recertifying, an inability to communicate with one's case worker, and general confusions or frustrations with regard to the program.

Takeaways

Limited Help

Users reported simply being unable to connect to their caseworker and spending hours in wait queues, many times without a meaningful end result

Pushed Out by Paperwork

Recipients noted the dependence on snail mail as a reason for anxieties around the back-and-forth of required materials – if those materials ever even reach the users. CalFresh paperwork is overwhelming and difficult to follow.

Deposit Confusion

CalFresh deposits aren't always received on the same days of the month and amounts can vary for various reasons. Users have trouble understanding deposits and which funds are available for use

Lack of Significant Feedback

While trying to access accounts and track status, recipients have no way of knowing where their paperwork might be in a certification process. This wastes precious time and drives users to the call center, serving to drive inefficiencies

The Stress of Recertifying

The most interesting discovery as it related to the pains of retaining one's CalFresh benefits was the concurrence of stressful life circumstances during the same time period in which recertification is required. There is a strong correlation between the phases of instability – divorces, relocations, responsibility for children dependents while unemployed, jobs at which to perform on top of full-time class class responsibilities, or the stress of being unhoused (to name a few) – and the need for CalFresh benefits.

This insight was supported by the findings of a Code for America study which sought to understand the particulars of the challenges faced by CalFresh recipients.

Some of the required paperwork for CalFresh recertifications
A CfA visual, depicting varying levels of stability for CalFresh recipients
/04 Reframing the problem

Removing Friction for CalFresh Users

I believed that these findings were indicative of a deeper problem: CalFresh recertifications create friction for users in a process that, under the best of circumstances, is already tiresome, confusing, emotionally-laden, and downright difficult.

Add the aforementioned stressors that often influence one's decision to apply for food stamps and it is no wonder that steps are missed, requirements misunderstood, and lines of communication broken.

My proposal was an approach that leverages the capabilities of a mobile platform, empowering users to better manage their own benefits, stay on top of required action, and bring CalFresh into the modern age of provider-recipient interactions.
/05 Inspiring confidence

Introducing MyCalFresh

By digitizing Calfresh's application and recertification processes, we allow space for a suite of tools that users will find beneficial and reduce the friction they experience while completing the steps required to retain their benefits.

Phone as the Address

Recipients who lack stable housing face barriers in receiving their mail. By moving correspondence to a digital medium, we reintroduce confidence back into one's interactions with CalFresh.

A More Useful EBT Card

Deposit amounts and available balance are some of the most frequent misunderstandings among CalFresh recipients. Clearer (and automized) communication with users on these topics reduces administrative overhead and helps alleviate bottlenecks at state call centers.

Recertify Without the Headaches

Introducing Branching Logic to reduce confusion and guide recertifiers down the right paths to continued benefits.

Track the Progress of Submissions

Users are dependent on the speed and effectiveness of snail mail and siloed administrative work, often to their detriment. Being able to more effectively follow the status of their paperwork goes a long way in achieving peace of mind and solving potential issues that would cause the expiration of benefits.

Adding Convenience to Interviews

Those dependent on admission to CalFresh are often subject to inconvenient interview times and unable to complete the required steps. By giving the user more options to schedule on their own time, interview success rates will increase.

/06 How I got there

Navigating the CalFresh System

It was important to understand key touchpoints of CalFresh. I gathered my findings on statistics about the program, procedures to be followed by users and administrative parties, and process flows into a research wall to better guide my generative user research.

Aggregated desk research with notes

Given the scope of the CalFresh application, benefit period, and recertification process, I translated my findings into a service blueprint. It highlighted areas of concern – points at which users are particularly dependent on strong communication with the state and where that communication often fails.

Service blueprint detailing the CalFresh process from inception through recertification

An Approach Grounded in Empathy

It is worth noting the psychological implications of the semiannual (SAR-7) and annual (CF-37) recertifications among CalFresh recipients, expressed clearly throughout the inquiries from which I drew some of my exploratory conclusions: these tasks are often seen as a barrier to retaining food security assistance, representing a potential loss of aid that has grown to be depended on. This is an emotionally taxing feeling.

I considered the pressures recipients reported in many of my findings – social, familial, cultural – and thought that referring to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs could further ground an approach rooted in compassion and empathy. The role that CalFresh plays is one directly related to the fulfillment of our most basic needs and so closely tied to the anxiety of potentially failing to fulfill them.

This begged an important question – I found that it was the most impactful part of this project, as it solidified the human lens through which the rest of the work could be done:

Why are we adding stress to an experience that is exacerbated (and oftentimes brought on) by other destabilizing life events, and what can we do to fix it?
/07 A Framework for Improvement

Design Strategy

I drafted up the following high-level questions that would inform my ideation:

  1. Which mediums might be the best at reducing friction in communication with CalFresh recipients and applicants?
  2. What are the edge cases that need to be considered?
  3. Which mediums are best suited for communicating with CalFresh recipients and applicants?

I grounded my approach by determining use-cases I would pursue by tracking back to the inquiries I explored, with the aim of improving the breakdown in communication between the state and the families it serves. From questions posted on r/foodstamps, I drafted up a handful of user stories to solidify goals at the current juncture.

(L) User stories grounding use-cases and (R) empathy map

De-Risking Problem Areas

I considered what success would look like simply by articulating the opposite of CalFresh's pain points. These aims anchored the rest of my ideation.

Language Discrepancy

Users reported receiving paperwork in a language they couldn't understand

Slow Communication

Many times, sending physical mail back-and-forth results in missed deadlines and fewer opportunities to course correct

Complex Paperwork

The sheer complexity of SAR-7 and Annual Recertification forms

Poor Feedback

No way to track the status of one's paperwork or standing in CalFresh system

Understanding

Provide the ability to instantly configure language preferences to one's liking

Instant Communication

Having access to a system that isn't prone to bottlenecks (ie. call center) improves user communication and reduces administrative overhead

User-Friendly Forms

Introduce branching logic to reduce cognitive load and empower users to complete tasks at hand

New Feedback Loops

Provide a level of feedback that allows users to stay on top of their application and recertification process

I jumpstarted my creativity by drawing up some HMW questions driven by these goals and began brainstorming on features that would work towards them. I sketched out a quick round of Crazy 8s driven by these prompts and mapped an impact matrix to find the most feasible, yet impactful, approach to implementing some of the ideas.

How Might We...

...bridge the communication gap to enable more efficient reassessments?

...empower CalFresh recipients to stay on top on their coverage dates?

...create a more flexible, user-centric interview platform?

...digitize paperwork and reduce the inconsistencies of traditional mail delivery?

...provide feedback that keeps users informed of their status in the CalFresh system?

Crazy 8s sketching on features that could address reported problem areas

Why Digital?

The case for a digital solution and its affordances was clear cut: an income-striated study from Pew showed that American smartphone ownership and its uses are at an all-time high – I paid particular attention to the lower-income segment, which is especially likely to rely on mobile internet as the primary method of conducting online activities.

An Improved Flow

The most significant change to the standard way of completing reassessments would be the digitizing of paperwork submissions. The goal of simplifying the user flow for this process would be supported by the introduction of branching logic, reducing cognitive load on users navigating through the normally dense SAR-7 and CF-37 paperwork.

Preliminary sketches of new user flows with annotations detailing various features of a CalFresh mobile platform, including digital assessments, EBT balance, chat with case worker, and push notifications

I envisioned a scanning feature that would allow users to upload and store vital confirmation and support documents, such as a driver's license, pay stub, or other forms of proof of address, medical and childcare costs, or dependent guardianship. This eliminates the extra step of needing to find separate scanning and copying capabilities, and allows users to store any documentation for uploading in a single place.

(L) Wireframes of a central library of user documents and tasks, and (R) a proposed home screen, aiming to eliminate the convoluted flows users are forced to undergo for common inquiries

I also considered the frequency of common complaints among users. Understanding one's EBT balance, as well as deposit dates and details, were among the most frequently cited complaints without a reliable fix. By presenting users with the most important actions required for CalFresh, as well as a quick way to understand the funds available, frustrations in these areas could be improved.

/08 Going Forward

An Outline for Testing and Iterating

User Testing

My immediate next step would be to get a working prototype in front of users, aiming to understand whether or not they would find the digital process of reporting changes and uploading documents helpful.

Sit-Down Interviews

It would be beneficial for further iterations to again sit down with users and delve into their unique CalFresh experiences. Challenging some of the assumptions on which this initial MVP is based would allow more space to explore and generate new leads on areas users struggle with. It is likely that these chats would also reveal new edge cases, informing new approaches to dealing with some of the barriers that exist in applying for and retaining food security benefits.

Prototype Iteration

It is my belief that as our society progresses and more individuals have access to phones and mobile internet, more of our social service programs will pivot to the digital landscape as their key touchpoint. There are likely several features that would be beneficial to users trying to convert more of the physical world into the digital (forms, verifications, etc.) that would be worth exploring in this context.