U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
Role: Lead UX designer
Team: Jen Ehlers, Phoebe Espiritu, Kate Garklavs, Jeannine Hunter, Meghana Khandekar, Rebecca Piazza, Ryan Thurlwell, John Yuda
After the weather and taxes, immigration is one of the government services that people visit most online. Every week, around 3 million people visit the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website to understand the application process, check the status of their cases, and seek help. USCIS receives about 6 million petitions and applications a year — that’s more than 16,000 a day. Supporting this many users is a huge task, and USCIS knows it could do more to meet customer needs on its website.
I know firsthand how challenging the immigration process can be. After our wedding, my husband, who is a British citizen, applied to adjust his status to become a permanent resident. We thought our case would be relatively straightforward — but instead it lasted nine months and involved more than a few sleepless nights.
18F worked with USCIS to help uncover the needs of its customers and develop myUSCIS, a customer-facing site to help users navigate their relationship with the agency.
Central to the changes we worked on was focusing on the journey of the person submitting the application rather than the life cycle of a form or process. Currently, USCIS interacts with customers on a form-by-form basis. myUSCIS is a step in creating a unified experience for all the applications and interactions that make up that journey.
USCIS had been working for years to modernize their internal systems, and had even hired a prominent design agency to help them rethink the customer experience. But their internal processes were so hard to change that they couldn’t execute on those ideas.
Why? Because USCIS relies on a bunch of legacy systems that don’t work very well, and their customer service is at breaking point — they’re getting so many calls from folks going through the immigration process, they simply can’t cope.
Problems for applicants
And you can imagine what that situation is like for a user of their services. We gathered the stories of many USCIS customers in order to understand the fine details of the process that really matter to them — the touch points that make the difference between a reassuring, happy process and a confusing or anxious one.
In our research with USCIS applicants, we learned:
- Users have a lot of questions. The USCIS website doesn’t have clear answers, and when users call for help, they’re put on hold for hours and rarely get the information they’re looking for.
- Preparing applications is confusing. Forms are in legal language with convoluted instructions. Many users are so intimidated that they hire expensive immigration lawyers.
- When users submit their applications, they wait for months without a clear expectation of when they’ll hear back. There’s a website where users can check their status, but it’s not intuitive, and it doesn’t give granular enough information for them to feel at ease.
We used these insights as the starting point for a series of workshops conducted with the product team and USCIS stakeholders. Together we created user personas and design principles to guide our design process, developed a prioritized set of features to address user needs, and sketched out a collective vision for the product through a series of design studios.
Designing new features
From these initial sketches, we began designing and building several product features.
We started by reorganizing information to help users sort through the many options and forms. Users can enter their current immigration status and select what they’re trying to do. The site shows them what they’re eligible for and how to apply.
To answer customers’ questions, we built a growing repository of answers to frequent questions.
We also created some simple search tools to help people find doctors, English and citizenship classes, and other resources they might need during the process.
And we built a simple online form for the application for naturalization, with lots of tips and validations to help users through, and instructions in plain English.
To support the application process, we prototyped an account system so users can track their applications, see notices and appointments in a single location, and find out what to expect next.
Validation and iteration
Throughout this design process, we conducted usability testing to validate and iterate on our designs. One main focus of our usability testing was to validate whether applicants for citizenship were able to complete the N-400, the online application for naturalization. We recruited participants who were preparing to apply for citizenship and had a range of technical and English proficiency, to make sure the application would be accessible to a wide range of users.
A central goal for us was designing for trust — we had a pretty major repair job to do on USCIS’s relationship with the people it was serving. Thoughtful design, that demonstrated that USCIS did have users’ best interests at heart and was trying to help, was the beginning of rebuilding that trust.