Over the past seven weeks, more than 33 million people have filed for unemployment in the United States due to the economic shutdown as a result of Covid-19. There were 20.5 million jobs lost in April alone, and the unemployment rate has risen to 14.7%, the highest since the Great Depression.
Filing for unemployment is not a process anyone enjoys - beyond the obvious stress that comes with being unemployed, the actual process of filing is often paired with images of long lines at the unemployment office or hours spent on the phone, only to be put on hold for the fifth time.
In our current scenario, these 33 million unemployment filers were almost certainly not expecting to have to file for unemployment soon, and certainly not all at once. And the individual states were not expecting it either. This surge has drastically overloaded government websites in each state, and it has also left people without access to computers with no means to file for benefits.
I’ve seen firsthand how confusing and difficult it is to apply for unemployment. My brother, a chef in NYC, was laid off along with the rest of restaurant workers in the city in mid-March. He doesn’t have a computer, so I offered to help him apply for unemployment online.
I was expecting it to be an easy process - he had already created an account and just needed to reapply for benefits each week. But it couldn’t have been more confusing.
This experience made me want to help. I immediately joined a group at Rocket that was focusing on Covid-19 projects, built a team, and got to work. We decided to focus our efforts on auditing the existing experience and redesigning the workflow for the New York unemployment site as a starting point.
Beyond general usability and styling issues, we immediately identified four core usability issues that would be easy wins for New York, as well as other state unemployment systems, to implement.
Step 1: Put log in first
It sounds simple, but it would make a huge difference. In its current state, it’s almost impossible to figure out how to log in and file a claim. Users have to navigate to “Get Unemployment Assistance”, read paragraphs of notifications, click on “File a Claim”, and then log in, which takes users to a separate page. Logging in should be the first step - instead, it’s the fourth.
Step 2: Make creating an account easy
This may be stating the obvious, but don’t force users to abandon their workflow to create an account on a completely separate website. The goal for creating an unemployment benefits account should be twofold: capture information needed to process claims, and help the user understand what to expect.
To fix this, we first ask for all relevant account information and personal information.
Next, we set expectations. Is the user even eligible for unemployment benefits? And if so, how much should they expect to receive?
Step 3: Create a hub
In its current state, important information such as government updates, payment history, direct deposit set-up and filing a claim are sporadically placed among several different screens in a non sequential order. Grouping all of the most important information together in a dashboard allows users to quickly find what they’re looking for, and take action.
Due to the fact that things are crazy right now, policies change weekly if not daily. The current system is inundated with information and notifications. We tackled this by creating a rolling feed for all government updates and information, with links to read more. This way, users won’t miss important updates and won’t be overwhelmed with notification overload.
On top of this, filing a claim should be front and center. Instead of hiding the button in multiple layers of text, we think it should be the first thing users see.
Step 4: Autofill information
It’s unlikely that a user’s unemployment status will change week to week, so why not make it easier for them and autofill all of their answers from the past week, instead of having to fill out the same laborious form each week? Having users only update their forms when their status has changed would save them time and stress, and would also probably make things easier on the back end.
We tackled this in two parts - first, by adding a modal that immediately appears when a user clicks on “File New Claim”. This allows users to quickly select whether their status has changed or not. If it hasn’t, the form populates with the same information as the prior week. If it has, the user has the opportunity to update the form with new information.
Second, we pre-filled the form and also added explanatory information. If users are unsure as to whether their status has changed, they can dig into more information right on that screen.
Step 5: Set Expectations
Filing for unemployment is frustrating at best and terrifying at worst. It’s awful enough losing a job, and not knowing when you’ll receive your unemployment check (does it take a week? Two weeks? A month? Nobody knows) doesn’t help. A simple reminder to users that lets them know their claim has been filed as well as a general timeframe for receiving funds is huge.
On top of these core features, there are general usability fixes that would be fairly easy to implement:
- The flow is non-sequential and confusing. First I need to file for a claim, then create an account (which takes me to a separate website), log in, click on file for claim, enter dashboard, navigate to to unemployment section on dashboard, enter my pin (when did I make a pin?), enter JobZone account information, enter HTML-only unemployment center, claim benefits, fill in long questionnaire. More than ten steps just to log in and file for my unemployment benefits, which I have to do every week.
- There’s way too much text. While the announcements are important, they are far too verbose and their placement hides important information and action points.
While we can’t control the fact that state systems are wildly overwhelmed and have had to adopt confusing tactics to manage flow (for example, having all people with last names with A-F file on Monday, G-N on Tuesday, and O-Z on Wednesday as they do in New York), taking some steps to make it easier to file and setting expectations would go a long way.
We focused on New York simply because we had access to the system, but these updates can easily be applied to any state unemployment system. While we fully understand that a full redesign isn’t likely to be a priority both in terms of time and budget, we do hope that state systems can adopt these small improvements to make filing for unemployment a slightly easier process for the millions of Americans struggling with the process right now.