A Government Techie’s Promise on Improving the Immigration User Experience: Yes, We’re Serious
How the US Digital Service used tech smarts and common sense to streamline the visa process.
For me, the immigration process has always been deeply personal. I come from a family of immigrants — my father’s family is from Colombia, my mother’s parents were Cuban refugees. I have cousins on student visas who are hoping to find jobs and build permanent lives in America. I have seen firsthand how difficult and heartbreaking it is when family is separated because of glitches in systems and flaws in policy, and it’s why I care so deeply about modernizing our immigration system.
At first glance, the mostly paper-based process seems poorly designed. It can be confusing, frustrating, and at times, akin to sending documents into a dark, deep void. Papers change hands multiple times and the applicant is responsible for keeping track of various actors, agencies, deadlines, and forms. From the time a petitioner submits a petition to the time an immigrant receives a permanent resident card, the U.S. government physically transfers paper files no fewer than six times over thousands of miles. A system that is responsible for thousands of people coming to our country every year is in dire need of a design upgrade.
So last November, following the President’s call for streamlining and modernizing the visa process, our team at the U.S. Digital Service joined forces with the Departments of State and Homeland Security to identify ways to improve how visas are processed. For the first time in these departments’ histories, the processes, policies, and systems would be user-centered in design and focus.
The first thing we did was to send our ethnographer in residence, Kate Krontriris, into the field. She traveled to Montreal and Santo Domingo to witness the immigration process from the perspective of the applicant and the consular officers conducting interviews, with the hope of understanding what could be improved about the process. She found that the definition of “user” varied depending on whom you talked to, and that there was actually more than one user to design for. This type of feedback from users in the field was invaluable because it added an important human layer to the recommendations that our collaborating technical teams made (you can find these here).
We also sent our team of engineers into the agencies to evaluate their systems and what technical improvements could be made. Their recommendations included: adopting modern best practices for software development, such as deploying in a flexible hosting environments (the cloud), and using monitoring systems to measure system performance. We also called on agencies to modernize and simplify their technology stacks, opting for services that enable development teams to work efficiently and build scalable, cost-effective products. These recommendations were based on four principles:
1. Understand user needs. By seeking out the needs of both applicants and government collaborators who interact through immigrant visa service delivery mechanisms, we actually heard directly from people who use these systems, instead of making assumptions about their needs and pain points.
2. Address the whole experience, from start to finish. We found that applicants are often overwhelmed by the multiple agencies that play a role in their immigration process. By integrating the activities of all the relevant agencies, we were able to minimize confusion and streamline the adjudication process.
3. Make the process clear, simple, and intuitive. When people understand the process, they are more prepared to make their requests and, frankly, more compliant with necessary benefit processes and documentation. DHS had already identified this as a need and, in response, built MyUSCIS, which allows users to search for benefit types based on what they need.
4. Use the same language and design patterns when building digital services whenever possible. By creating consistency within design patterns, users become familiar with the services offered and can make reasonable assumptions and guesses regarding their next steps in the process. This is extremely relevant for the global nature of the responsibilities of these agencies; keeping design and language consistent will empower agencies and consular posts to customize their process to meet local circumstances.
While these recommendations will not fix our immigration system entirely, they will go a long way in improving how applicants interact with our government on their immigration journey. I’m reminded of a song by the famous Dominican singer Juan Luis Guerra, “Visa para un sueño (Visa for a dream),” an upbeat merengue that describes the emotional toll behind the journey to this country, waiting for a visa, and for a chance at fulfilling a dream. I do this work because I believe that if we can successfully upgrade the systems that power one of the most fundamentally American experiences, we can help everyone get a little closer to their dreams.
Vivian Graubard works for the United States Digital Service
Photograph by Stephen Voss