How to use service design during a crisis response

During a crisis, the volume of applications to critical benefit programs often rises dramatically. Service design can help applicants better understand what they’re eligible for and how to apply, helping to decrease incomplete or incorrect application submissions.

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Efficiently processing applications to critical benefit programs at times of crisis can be challenging because the volume of applications rises dramatically. If many of those applications are incorrect or incomplete, the time it takes to process them further increases.

With service design, you can help applicants better understand what they’re eligible for and how to apply, you can decrease the number of incomplete or incorrect applications.

Service design is:

A practice that considers all of the tools, interactions, and relationships between those using and those supporting the service to remove obstacles, align activities, and create a better experience for everyone involved.

These projects can help you:

  • Make information and processes more simple, clear, and accessible.
  • Increase the rate of correctly completed benefit applications.
  • Process benefit applications more efficiently.

Projects are scoped by the number of days you may need to complete them. Regardless of how much time you have, they will all help you get the right information to the right people, at the right time, so that you can help more people as quickly as possible.

Three days: Test your language

Language testing is used to find out if a user correctly interprets the meaning conveyed by your questions, labels, copy, and instructions. One method of language testing is called paraphrase testing. In paraphrase testing, you compare what the user thinks copy means or is asking of them with the words and instructions on the page. Often, there’s a gap between the intention of the questions, copy, labels, and instructions on a form and the user’s interpretation of them. This causes confusion and incorrect or incomplete forms.

Clarifying language is something the team behind prioritized in order to help people quickly find and understand the information they need. “Every word is written so that Californians can have reassurance in the midst of chaos,” said Angelica B. Quirarte, Assistant Secretary for Digital Engagement, California Government Operations Agency.

As another example, the Nava team that worked on iterated on the copy and design of the website’s online enrollment forms. Read their lessons learned.

To help you and your team clarify the language on your websites, has a great guide for paraphrase testing. It includes how to conduct interviews, along with questions to ask participants.

If you’re able, we recommend offering participants at least $50 for 30 minutes to help ensure they’ll be able to give you their time.

Go to’s paraphrase testing guidelines.

One week: Conduct user research

Interviewing people is one form of user research that can help you determine where applications aren’t clear.

Let's say you have 6,000 applications and 30 percent didn't include the documents needed to make an eligibility determination. Following up to gather the required documents takes precious time from claims processors and applicants and hinders your ability to process benefits quickly.

But because your applicants are a ready pool of research participants, you can conduct user research more quickly than usual. We have a comprehensive toolkit to help you conduct user research and interview participants with incomplete applications so you can identify where and how you need to improve your forms. Please note, you may want to use it with our Plain language templates for user research.

Go to Nava’s User research guide for improving forms.

Two weeks: Map your service

Mapping your service will give you a big picture of your service, critical moments, inefficiencies, as well as risks resulting from increased demand and opportunities for improvement. It can also help you unite teams to move forward more quickly on those improvements.

When you’re in the thick of the day-to-day work of delivering a service, it can be hard to know exactly what’s happening across often-siloed teams, let alone what’s going wrong and how to fix it. And it may feel counterintuitive to take a high level overview of a service as the demand for it is rapidly growing, but doing so will make clear the most effective steps to better serve more people faster.

Nava designers Genevieve Gaudet and Kelli Ho created a comprehensive toolkit to help you map your service by creating a service blueprint. It includes a service blueprint template and all the steps you’ll need to take to create it with your team, key users, and stakeholders.

Go to Nava’s Service blueprinting guide.

One month: Help people send documents online

Providing applicants with clear guidance on what documents are required and making it easy for them to submit them online, with their own phones, dramatically decreases the time it takes for applicants to submit eligibility documents.

While working with the State of Vermont, we built an uploader tool that enabled 55 percent of Vermonters applying for benefits to submit their documents within 24 hours, compared to just 11 percent before. The uploader tool helps solve a common problem by making it faster and easier for applicants to submit their documents using a tool they have at hand, instead of relying on mail, in-person delivery, or a desktop computer.

The uploader tool also uses design and software components that can be adapted and reused—not only for other programs across the State of Vermont—but for any benefit program.

If an uploader tool sounds like it could be useful for you and your service, we’d love to work with you to rapidly deploy it.

Get in touch with Nava about adopting the benefit programs document uploader tool.

Always: Keep your eye on the long game

These are practices that can help you right now, but remember short-term fires create long-term kindling. We hope agencies will use times of crisis as opportunities to make small, quick changes that will further support—not hinder—a long-term path to making services more simple, effective, and accessible to all.

So, start small, learn quickly, make changes as needed, and foster a culture that embraces both learning and change. The work we all do at these times will greatly affect programs and the people they serve for decades to come.

Get in touch

If you use this guide, we’d love to hear from you. To share questions or feedback, email us at

Written by

Jodi Leo

Chief Delivery Officer

Jodi Leo is the Chief Delivery Officer at Nava.

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