Insight

Building public benefit claims trackers across states

Online claims trackers can be an intuitive, useful tool for public benefit programs to adopt. Here's what we learned through our work helping design and build claims trackers for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as well as the state of California.

An illustration of a young white woman sitting at a computer in the library. There are two computers to her left, and a Black man uses one of them.

Online claims trackers can be an intuitive, useful tool for public benefit programs to adopt. They can help communicate to claimants where their unemployment or healthcare claim stands, building trust and reducing the need for burdensome interactions, such as calling a contact center. Claims trackers are a familiar feature in the private sector, from package tracking to pizza delivery apps. In an increasingly digital world, many have come to expect these kinds of self-service, private sector experiences in the public benefits space. Some states looking to enact these features for their public programs have even explicitly named the Domino’s pizza tracker as inspiration.

At Nava, we have helped build claims trackers for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as well as the state of California. In Massachusetts, we were tasked with building the digital side of the state’s first paid family medical leave (PFML) program. Because Massachusetts’ PFML program is administered through employers, we built claims trackers for both the claimant and employer. 

The California Employment Development Department (EDD) brought Nava in to help build a claims tracker tool amidst the explosion of claims during the pandemic. We aimed to build on existing systems and release a minimum viable product to solve a specific problem during a crisis. 

While these projects differed in scope and goal, they shared commonalities that helped inform us on designing claims trackers for public benefit programs in the future. Those principles are: 

  • Guide claimants with personalized information

  • Build trust through transparency

  • Strive for simplicity

In this article, we’ll detail what we learned about designing and building public benefit claims trackers through our experiences.

Guide claimants with personalized information 

Designing public benefit claims trackers means conveying information to claimants about complex and at times confusing processes. Based on our research, claimants want information that is tailored to their specific situation. 

When we interviewed claimants in California on our claims tracker, a claimant told us: "I like it because it also talks about my claim rather than being general to the general population... the homepage tends to be very general because it’s for everybody."

Give direct and actionable next steps

Claimants want to know specifically what they need to do next in the process. If no action is required, clearly indicate that. For example, in California, the Claim Status Tracker page we designed included a Claim Status section summarizing the claimants’ overall status with a list of next steps for both the claimant and EDD. Below that, the Claim Details section pulls disparate claim data once located in multiple locations together in one place, making it easier for claimants to understand how their next steps and claim data relate.

As a claimant we interviewed said, “I want some more details...just to cross-reference because...it’s most frustrating when you log on or something has changed or your account has been flagged or put on hold...and you just kind of have no clue.”

Hide irrelevant information

Hide information that is not relevant to a claimant, such as detailed explanations of how the overall claims process works or a one-size-fits-all solution. In general, claims trackers should not force claimants to interpret whether something applies to them. 

One challenge we encountered in Massachusetts is how much of the behind the scenes process we should reveal to claimants. Claimants file their PFML claims to their employer, who then file it to the Department of Family and Medical Leave (DFML). The claim is then reviewed by DFML, who communicate back with the employer on the status of the claim. A claim travels through multiple reviews before a claimant can expect an answer.

We ultimately decided to collapse multiple review steps into simplified statuses, communicating the least amount of information that was only relevant to the claimant. For example, while there are many steps involved in reviewing a claim—staff need to conduct an identity check, review for fraud, and more—we chose not to reveal these steps to the claimant. We did this because there was no action required from the claimant, meaning revealing this level of detail would only increase the claimant’s worries unnecessarily. However, if a PFML payment is delayed due to an incorrect address or bank account information, we do notify the claimant and ask them to take steps to correct. 

Provide accurate timelines

Where possible, include rules of thumb or estimations of how long each step should take. In Massachusetts, we learned that after a claimant submitted their claims application, “pending” was not a very helpful status for them to receive, as it didn’t tell them what or when to expect a response. 

While we weren’t able to provide an exact date when they should expect answers, we instead provided a date range—skewed towards an upper range—when the claimant would receive word on their claim. This general date range proved helpful to claimants and, according to our user research, discouraged them from feeling the need to call our contact center. “Just knowing the process gives you peace of mind,” said one claimant we interviewed.

Build trust through transparency 

While claimants don’t want to be overwhelmed with information irrelevant to their needs, they still want a level of transparency with the claims process. Designers need to balance the need for personalized information with appropriate context in order to build trust with claimants.

Include clear paths for additional information

We found that claimants not only wanted actionable next steps, but direct links to those steps or options for additional information and support. As a claimant that we interviewed in Massachusetts said, “It's probably several clicks, several steps before I actually get the substance of what I need to know.”

We learned in our California work that claimants determining their claim status were forced to interpret program-specific terminology, processes, and underlying context. We worked with the agency to find the sweet spot between providing enough information to paint the bigger picture without requiring claimants to do additional research, but not adding so much context as to bury the key messages.

We landed on a practice of linking out to “help” content on the EDD website rather than embedding that content in the claim status tracker page. This provided claimants who wanted more details—for example about the process of certifying for benefits, or what happens when a payment is pending—an easy way to find that information without forcing all claimants to read this additional context.

Show claimants what is happening behind the scenes

Claimants want to know why decisions were made and who is responsible for next steps to help build trust. 

In California, we found in our research that one of the biggest claimant frustrations was encountering a seemingly endless “pending” status across payments on continued claims. As one claimant we interviewed said, “What’s really happening on their end? Why does it take 1-2 weeks to review to begin with?”

Working on this idea that providing additional context would help to reduce calls, we set out to understand the many different scenarios that can lead to the “pending” status. We needed to go a level deeper and provide a more detailed status summary that also gives claimants the reason why their status is pending, as well as indicating the current step in the process. 

Since there can be dozens of underlying reasons why a claim might be pending, it was important to take an iterative approach to deliver something quickly that can be used given the crisis of unemployment during the pandemic. In this case, we worked with the EDD to come up with a system that would provide detailed status information for just a few of the most common reasons for a pending status, while claims pending for another reason would still display a more generic status summary. An example of a more detailed status would be "Pending eligibility determination: Phone interview scheduled.” This system was designed so that after initial launch, it could be rapidly iterated to keep adding detailed statuses to cover more scenarios over time.   

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, we offered a behind the scenes view for both claimants and the employers responsible for facilitating benefits. We built two claims trackers: one claims tracker for the employer to track the claimant as well as the claimant to track the employer. This dual approach provided transparency on both ends of the process, helping to build trust across both users.

Strive for simplicity

Designers can promote understanding through language choices and information hierarchy. Whenever possible, it’s best to strive for simplistic ways of explaining terminology, process, and context.

Use concise, simple language

Communicate information using plain language, short sentences, and in as few words as possible. When communicating a status summary, for example, provide a succinct status summary as a header with just a couple lines of supporting text as opposed to a whole paragraph. 

This was our approach in California, where we also adopted the pattern of starting each item under "Your Next Steps" with a verb in order to focus on the action that needs to be taken.

As one California claimant said in an interview, "I actually really like it—it feels very straightforward. Some things just beat around the bush and I’m like, I don’t know what you guys are talking about. I’m just trying to get my money."

Content should also limit the use of the jargon, legislative terms, and acronyms. Terms used to describe certain processes or departments should be kept consistent across all content. In Massachusetts, where we built both the employer and the claimant portal, we made sure that terms were kept consistent between the employer, the claimant, and DFML, including the call center staff, for which we supported training that included consistent terms. 

Prioritize scannable content

Design well-structured, accessible, and scannable content, so claimants can quickly understand the most important points.

In California, we designed each claim status section to include three, scannable sub-sections:

  • A status heading

  • Your Next Steps

  • EDD Next Steps

When testing this scannable content with users, we heard positive feedback. “This [next steps section] tells me what to do,” said one user. “Keep certifying and on this date, do this and here’s what will happen. Very helpful, tells someone exactly what they need to do.”

Provide context

Include enough context to paint the bigger picture, without requiring claimants to do additional research.

In Massachusetts, we found through our research that claimants expected to see the reason for any delays or cancellations so that they can budget effectively and take action where needed. Claimants didn’t want to call the contact center or “research” issues. Easily viewable details about the reason for any delays or cancellations would either make claimants feel reassured that DFML would resolve the issue or help claimants take action to unblock their payment. 

As one of the claimants said, “As a claimant you’re thinking, do you have to do an action item, or are you just waiting for something [from DFML]? If there are any delays: WHY? I want to work on that immediately and make sure if there’s anything I can do to push it along.”

Conclusion

In both California and in Massachusetts, our work designing trackers helped claimants better understand when they could expect to hear about the status of their claim. 

In California, in the first three weeks after launch, there were over 5M unique pageviews to the claim status tracker. We’ve saw many examples on social media of claimants noticing the claim status tracker and referencing it as a source of truth about their claim. As one user said when we were testing one of our earlier prototypes, “It’s comprehensive. It includes a lot of things you’re going to look for. I like it because it also talks about my claim rather than being general to the general population.”

In Massachusetts, one user told us “This [next steps section] tells me what to do. Keep certifying and on this date, do this and here’s what will happen. Very helpful, tells someone exactly what they need to do.”

In both states, our team used claimant feedback to continually improve the status tracking experience. We recommend continuing to collect and incorporate user feedback into future iterations of these trackers in order to truly meet claimants’ needs.

Written by


Nicole Fenton

Program Design Lead

Nicole Fenton was a program design lead at Nava. Nicole is a writer, UX researcher, and design leader who has worked across industries including tech, publishing, and government.

Ryan Hansz

Designer, Researcher

Ryan Hansz is a Designer/Researcher at Nava. He has nearly a decade of experience in the public and private sectors and has worked for employers including Bloom Works, New York City Mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity, and Kaiser Permanente.

Andy Cochran

Senior Designer, Frontend Engineer

Andy Cochran is a Senior Designer/Frontend Engineer at Nava. Before joining Nava, he held several roles with employers including New York City Department of City Planning and New York City Council.

Diana Griffin

Senior Product Manager

Diana Griffin is a Senior Product Manager at Nava. Before joining Nava, she held several product management roles, including leading product and design at FindHelp, a social service referral platform.

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