Notes from an unemployed information architect

Why was it so difficult for me to claim unemployment?

I became eligible for unemployment insurance when I left my job as a product engagement manager and researcher last month. While I hate arbitrary, bureaucratic processes as much as anyone, I work on usability and information architecture, which I feel uniquely positions me to both express my frustration with a system and work through it constructively. I am also a librarian, so I understand that systems made to serve the public are sometimes difficult, messy, and poorly constructed. (Though they don’t have to be!)

Despite all this, I soon learned that a masters degree in Information Science and several years of work on systems and usability could not prepare me for excruciating process of applying for unemployment in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The day I was laid off, I Googled “Massachusetts Department of Unemployment” and clicked the convenient “UI for Claimants” link, which brought me here:

This page looks “official”

I also opened up the “How to Apply for Unemployment Benefits” link in another tab.

Seems pretty straightforward

I didn’t spend a lot of time reading the page, which in retrospect seems arrogant, but neither do most web users. The use of the word “Claimant” also felt strange to me: I couldn’t tell if the use of the word “Claimant” was an intentional usability obfuscation. As a native English speaker, I could infer the meaning of the word, but I have rarely heard it used in common parlance. In addition, the constant use of acronyms is perplexing: UI? DUA? Is it so difficult to explain acronyms before using them?

I clicked on “Apply for Benefits,” entered my Social Security number, chose a username and password, and filled out my claim, which was fairly straightforward. My claim was initially denied because I jumped the gun: I had to wait at least one week after my final day to file for unemployment. I found this information buried in a 36 page PDF on the main “UI for Claimants” page.

Soon after, I received a letter in the mail containing a brochure about unemployment, a flyer warning me of unemployment fraud, information on the unemployment debit card, and some other information that was also available online.

A week later, I refiled the claim, was directed to a confirmation screen, and received an email soon after. The email notified me of “time sensitive correspondence” in my “UI Online Inbox.” “Failure to respond to time sensitive requests for information may result in a loss or denial of your unemployment benefits,” the email warned. I logged in using my social security number and password and was brought to this screen.

I took this screengrab today but the screen has not changed

I clicked on the “important message regarding your UI claim” button, and was brought to a bold, red page with “Top Ten Tips to Avoid Unemployment Fraud.” (It was the same flyer I received in the mail.) I clicked the link today and it brought me to a 404.

A 404 message is the most prominent link on my homepage now

This homepage also informed me to review the messages in the “Other Messages” section. Scanning the page for more information, I eventually found a link called “My Inbox,” but no link called “Other Messages.” (Notice in the screenshot that there is an “Other Messages” section. There are three links there, two of which are irrelevant to my claim.)

Spot the red circle. There’s a section that says “Other Messages,” but it just links to two external sites on training opportunities and a link to file my claim.

In “My Inbox,” a series of PDFs provided me information about my “Claimant Monetary Determination,” and the status on all of them was “Review.” I dutifully downloaded all the PDFs and read them. Though this section was called an inbox, I could not delete, mark messages as read, or take any expected inbox actions.

Next, I clicked every link on the sidebar, front page, and within the inbox and could not find a section entitled “Other Messages.” I assumed that maybe my issue could be resolved from the “Other Messages” section but could not find it. I ignored the warning and assumed that I had no “other messages,” and if I did, they were in the section labeled “Other Messages.” Upon redirecting to the front page, the system prompted me to fill out my weekly claim for that week, and I did so accurately and fully.

My claim was rejected on the last screen. The “additional details” section on the page provided no information about why my claim was rejected.

I am primarily a search-dominant user rather than a link-dominant user and I am very comfortable reaching out to customer support in times of confusion, but I knew I would be on the phone for hours if I called.

Perhaps even worse, my pride got in the way: “Thousands of people successfully navigate this system every day,” I thought. “I have a masters degree in Information Science! Why can I not handle this?”

I even tweeted in frustration:

Andromeda Yelton informed me that this is called the “second system effect”

Before I called, I sent an email to the DUA inquiring about why my claim was rejected and received no response for four days. When I called on my appointed day, I held for almost an hour and finally got a sweet woman on the phone who promised me that I would receive unemployment benefits after my “waiting period” was up and that I needed to take no further action on my claim. She was sympathetic and kind, and I continued my job search and waited for the next weekly form to appear on my home page.

Almost a week after I sent the initial email, I received a response from “Agnes.” The email informed me that my checks were held up “pending the resolution of your remuneration issue.” I indicated on my initial claim form that I received a severance payment from my employer, and Agnes told me that neither I nor my employer had filled out the “questionnaires” that they requested.

These “questionnaires” were removed from my inbox when I did not respond, which made my claim ineligible. I still do not know where I would have found these “questionnaires,” and I will never know if my employer received them. (Perhaps they were in the elusive “other messages” section?) She walked me through the steps of how to access the questionnaire, which involved uploading a document in a section called “Monetary and Issue Summary.”

I followed her instructions, but was still not clear as to what document I should upload because the only document type listed on the submission form was a “Cover Letter.” I took an educated guess and uploaded my “Separation Agreement” from my employer even though it contained personal information that was not pertinent to my unemployment claim.

I emailed Agnes back to ask if the upload was sufficient, and she confirmed that I provided the correct documentation.

A week later, I received a check in the mail, though I specifically requested direct deposit.

The major issues with the DUA online system are not even primarily technological, but instead linguistic: The language and framing around the process is presented in a needlessly confusing manner to a vulnerable population. This incredible lack of care made me wonder whether the system is intentionally confusing: Does creating a bureaucratic gate-keeper keep certain people from accessing the system? Is that what we should expect of government services?

Five principles to make this process more humane:

1. Use clear language

There is no reason to use words like “Claimant” when a more common word would suffice. In addition, my claim was consistently described as in “remuneration,” or as having a “remuneration issue” when “payment” is clearer and has a similar meaning in this context.

According to census data, over 20% of Massachusetts households speak a language other than English at home. Complicating an already confusing process with difficult language seems at best tone-deaf and at worst disdainful.

2. Use less language

The front page of the DUA site is cluttered and unclear. I found concrete steps and rules to apply for unemployment insurance on the fifth page of a 36 page PDF, which is unacceptable. There should be graphical, logical, and elegant steps to walk a claimant through their issues.

Even providing a short checklist would create clarity without having to change the system significantly.

3. Use consistent naming conventions

I still have not located an “other messages” section of my online claim that is relevant to me and I am not positive that it exists. The “other messages” section on the front page of the site does not appear to be the same “time sensitive correspondence” referenced in the emails.

Official correspondence continuously references non-existent sections of my claim. Using consistent naming conventions would simplify the process and make it possible to file a claim in a more organized fashion.

4. Assume good intent

The DUA website pinned a message to the front page, sent me a flyer, and continued to remind me for a month that I should not abuse the unemployment system while I was simply trying to file a claim. In addition, the ominous warnings of losing my money if I failed to respond to a message (while providing no instructions on how to respond or the time period required), assumes that I am trying to use the system for nefarious ends.

The berating tone seemed cruel and unnecessary and the lack of clarity around accessing “important messages” made the situation even worse.

5. Provide more accessible solutions

I have a computer at home and consistent Internet access, so it was easy for me to sign in and check the status of my claim every day. In addition, I am unemployed with no dependents and have plenty of time to work through my issues with my application.

The Massachusetts DUA website directs people without Internet access at home to a “One-Stop Career Center” or local library to use free, publicly accessible computers. Of the six career centers in a five mile radius of my home, two have been closed, and all would take over an hour to get to on public transit.

In addition, the system provides messages via PDFs, most of which are not viewable in-browser. While many libraries allow patrons to download PDFs, some don’t, and still others may feel uncomfortable downloading personal information to a shared computer.

The obvious solution is to make the messages viewable in-browser and exported to PDF if needed for a documentation purpose. Providing easier access (particularly via mobile) to the system and questionnaires would also allow more communities access to their benefits.

This system underscores the human-centered design tenet that design cannot be divorced from content. While the overall information architecture of the site was certainly confusing, many of my most frustrating moments could have been eliminated by clarifying the process by using simple language, checklists, and consistency.

In the end, better accessibility makes systems better for everyone and, as technologists, we can and should be doing more. Creating inroads to improve civic technology that communities rely upon is far more important than a fancy new product that will “change the world.” As products fade into obscurity and the world largely remains the same, unemployment insurance is still there waiting for you, if only you could get it.