Social Security commits to a new website design it hope will improve customer experience

The customer experience drive has not been lost on the Social Security Administration. Few if any agencies exceed the 180 million online visitors SSA receives every year. Now Social Security has made a significant upgrade to its public website to make it easier to use. To get the details, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with SSA’s acting chief business officer, Eric Powers.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin
And tell us what was behind...

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The customer experience drive has not been lost on the Social Security Administration. Few if any agencies exceed the 180 million online visitors SSA receives every year. Now Social Security has made a significant upgrade to its public website to make it easier to use. To get the details, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with SSA’s acting chief business officer, Eric Powers.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin
And tell us what was behind the move on this new website? What were you trying to accomplish here, or what was wrong with the old one?

Eric Powers
There was actually several things that happened right about the same time that caused us to move in this area. First and foremost, the pandemic hit us we saw with pandemic operations that our customers shifted the way that they engage with us. They conducted their business more across multiple service channels, including online and telephone, yet they expected a consistent experience and a connected experience across all of those channels. So we need to find a way to keep up with that demand and improve the customer experience. At the same time, we had entered into a collaborative agreement with the U.S. Digital Service to look at the ways that we were conducting business with our customers and improve the customer experience overall, those two things coming together plus feedback from our customers directly that told us that with the focus of service coming to our site in that situation that we needed to make self service more prominent the services that people were coming to our website for more of a focus of the content.

Tom Temin
And when you mentioned customer feedback and research, did you have a formalized way of understanding what a projectable sample of people were actually thinking and doing and finding at the old site?

Eric Powers
Absolutely. So we use many different mechanisms to assess a customer’s behavior and needs. Overall, we employed the human centered design process. So that means we put our customers at the center of our design process. So we started by looking at the data on a current website, we saw the content that will people were accessing most, as well as the content that people were asking from us the most through things like our search and FAQs. On top of that we looked at behavioral information, how will people navigating across the website? Are they having difficulty in the pathways across different pages? Do we see drop offs or issues with that behavior? So there was a wealth of data there already to help us understand where there might be problems. Now, that’s very quantitative data. We also wanted the qualitative data. So we had to go to our customers directly for this. So we began a process of customer interviews and focus groups to inform our decisions, to understand their perspectives, the language that they use to describe their needs, and intents and more importantly, to understand the frame of mind that our customers were coming to us with and the problems that they were trying to solve. So all of that information, we use that together with the qualitative and the quantitative information to inform our initial design concepts.

Tom Temin
Right. And so there must be a method for translating that information into a design and I’m looking at the site. And it has a lot of qualities you might expect for people as you normally think of the typical Social Security customers, someone that’s a little older. So the type is big and black on the headlines, and there’s not a lot of decoration on the site, I will say refreshingly simple. As far as the front end goes. How did you arrive at those particular characteristics?

Eric Powers
Well, there’s both best practices and interest and again, feedback from the customers themselves. We’ve seen successful efforts from other organizations in both the private and government sectors. As far as simplicity and design, we look to other efforts, like the U.K.’s on design services group and their efforts in simplifying the experience and streamlining it. You’ll notice many of those instances of things that you pointed out, they tend to be task oriented, the amount of language is kept to a minimum to describe the things that are necessary to allow a person to be successful through the process, the right information at the right time, and minimize distractions from things like pictures or other embellishments that may improve the look of the site. But in some cases, like people who are navigating on a mobile device or in areas where connections and bandwidth are low may not actually improve the experience might detract from it. So absolutely. The private industry informed us, our research informed us in we put it into play and tested it to great success.

Tom Temin
We’re speaking with Eric Powers, he’s acting chief business officer at the Social Security Administration. And it’s only been officially launched now for I guess, a few weeks and what are you seeing in terms of the metrics say, relative to the old site, or is it too early to tell?

Eric Powers
We are seeing very positive have results right off the bat from the release, both in direct feedback and in behavior. I think it is too early at this point, it’s been a little over four weeks since our launch to say with confidence that we achieved all of our goals. I say that because with any new product, when you update it, there’s a little bit of exuberance in that. Something new people respond emotionally to that new product. But over time, as people become more accustomed to the design, and how it works, you start seeing that real feedback, where are the problem areas, so where are the opportunities for improvement. So right off the bat, we are seeing much higher satisfaction from our customers that respond to us, we are seeing reductions in the amount of time it takes for people to find the things that they are seeking on our website. So the initial indicators are very good.

Tom Temin
And as the population ages, nevertheless, the people that are turning Social Security eligibility to turn again to that central customer and, leaving out disability, for example, but yet, it’s a younger and younger, 65 year old, if you will, in terms of when they grew up. And so more people are comfortable with digital means of communications, as time goes on. Are you seeing long term a shift to preference for the online versus the old way of going to a Social Security office? And I imagine the COVID is kind of interrupted the clear view of that trend?

Eric Powers
Well, there’s certainly a trend in using self service to accomplish Social Security business. We’ve seen that over the years and number of people that are applying online. And certainly the pandemic, to some extent accelerated that simply through the availability and the convenience of not having to walk into an office to do that. Now, the newer generations as they come into our products, it’s not just about putting our processes online it, it’s also about the convenience and the ease of use of those things. So we’re looking very carefully at how we can reduce the complexity and burden of our tasks. In particular, helping people understand are very complex programs. There are a lot of rules and exceptions with many of our programs that come from our regulations and laws. And rather than trying to tell people everything that they could possibly know about a particular program, we tried to ask the right questions using dynamic tools and features so that we can expose the information that’s relevant to them. So it’s not just about putting things online, it’s about improving how people consume the information and are able to complete tasks.

Tom Temin
I was going to say Social Security shares with the IRS and quite a number of other agencies, the need to somehow inculcate just decades of rulemaking driven by legislation. None of these things are simple. And there’s a lot of legal mystic stuff you have to incorporate in the way the website operates. Do you have modern tools for abstracting all of that, so that it stays somewhat simple for people that are applying under a typical or normal type of situation?

Eric Powers
Yes, we learn, there’s a couple areas to draw upon here. We’re not just designing for the folks that are able to use our online services readily. We’re also designing for people that have difficulties with cognitive processing with using computers and other things. And a lot of the design principles that you see and to deploy successful services for those type customers are actually good design principles for the general population. So things like reducing the amount of questions you ask at once, breaking things into smaller steps so that people can easily progress through a longer process and understand where they are within that process. And, again, providing context and information at the time that it’s necessary rather than all at once. So that chunking that simplification makes for a different experience than what you typically see in government forms. An example of that, one of the tools that we implemented on the website in our initial release is an eligibility screener. So if you go to our website, we’ll see prominently one of the links in the top left corner is something that says check eligibility for benefits. It’s a very simple wizard that answers, ask questions one at a time. And based off your viewer responses as you go through that process, you get additional questions and only then not unnecessary questions to get you the answer that you’re looking for. So we intend to use processes like that and applying them to other business processes to our application processes to other services that may have complex rules to make it easier for people to get to completion.

 

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