UCLA Service Design

Case study: digital forms are not just the interface

Imagine online forms that ask only a few, essential questions. Imagine the surprise when it used to take two weeks to hear back whether your form was approved, but now it takes just two days—or even just two seconds.

About UCLA

University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) is an international research university located in southern California. The 2017-2018 edition of Times Higher Education ranks UCLA 15th in World University Rankings, and 13th in World Reputation Rankings.

My role

Starting in 2013, UCLA initiated conversion of its graduate program’s paper-based forms to digital. The University’s Graduate Program recruited me to be strategic lead on the project. As Lead User Experience Designer reporting directly to the Director of Technology, I led a six-person product team to research, design, develop, and deliver a comprehensive solution.


Chris Testa–head of technology. Perre DiCarlo–lead user experience designer. Michael Flaxman & Estrella Arciba–senior analysts and domain experts. Van Nguyen–lead developer & data architect. Alex Weber–lead front end developer. Eric Manasca & Priya Thangaraju–developers. Colleen McCormick–ux researcher. Reid Johnson–project manager.

A misplaced question

Even prestigious universities still task students with an annoying collection of steps to submit a form: visit a desktop computer so you can download a pdf form, print it onto paper, fill in your name, id number, program you’re in, degree goal, email, and twelve more answers by hand, then either submit the paper form to a specific office or scan the paper form into an image file and email it to that office. You’ll eventually hear back from the University if you’re approved or not.

When we ask “How do we convert paper forms to digital?” the answer is obvious because every single person tasked with filling out a form complains about these initial pain points. To answer this question, several software as a service (SaaS) solutions arrived to save the day.

Today, an organization can quickly move every paper form online by adopting a modern form-building service such as Typeform or Survey Monkey. Customers get a mobile-friendly, fun interface to enter their information.

However, these form-building services ignore our customers’ vastly more painful pain points that come after submission. We only learned of these challenges and how we might solve them by asking more strategic questions, then conducting usability studies and customer interviews.

My whiteboard in 2014 beginning to fill up with customer comments from usability studies.

Asking strategic questions, and investigating how to answer them

Instead of asking how we go digital, let’s begin by posing questions within the Jobs to be Done framework. We might then ask, “What job does a university hire a form to do?” and “What job arises in the student’s life that she reaches for a form to accomplish?”. This leads us on productive investigations into customer motives, and on a journey to find surprising and potentially actionable answers.

At UCLA, we rely on forms to handle common student requests, like:

“Can I take time off from school for a medical emergency?”
“Can I add this new member to my thesis committee?”

The answer to these requests is a clear “yes” or “no”. But a school’s process for coming to this decision is anything but direct or transparent.

Universities are attached to their internal review processes, and so also to the decades-old paper forms which codify their processes. Not only do paper forms help a university keep a record of each request, but they also help maintain accountability, consistency, and fairness of decisions. Every paper form travels across campus, handed from one school official to the next until it returns back to the student with a yes/no answer. Unfortunately, it takes a long while after submitting a request for a student to see a result. How long do students wait?

  • For the most simple form at UCLA, this “time-to-review” process took an average of two weeks.
  • The most complex form took an average of three months.

How did we learn about this enormous pain point? In our earliest usability study, a student described submitting a form in stark terms:

“Applying online is like throwing a paper airplane into a black hole.” -quote from a UCLA student, jotted down on a sticky note by an observer during an early usability study.

Even best-in-class form-building services don’t provide a solution for this “black hole”. After a student presses submit, form-building services treat their work as complete. They leave companies with JSON files or spreadsheets filled with customer requests, or they provide fancy graphs and charts analysing the data. But for our 15,000 students, our staff, and our faculty, the black hole remains.

By solving only the “data collection interface” challenge (i.e. literally moving a form’s questions online), we would have left in place this long wait. We wouldn’t have investigated why it took so long.

Once we did investigate, we were surprised how much hinges on a form.

A student hires a form in a time of personal crisis to enable her to take time off school. One student whose father was sick in Vietnam told me that a lot depends on the speed of the answer. If she’s approved, then she needs to buy a plane ticket which is more expensive the longer she waits. She has to find someone to sublet her apartment, or she has to move her bed and sofa into storage while she’s away. Every day she’s waiting for an answer, other school deadlines pass her by and her alternative options narrow. This student has an urgent motive. Certainly she hires a form to hear a yes or no answer, but she also hires it to hear that answer quickly.

University officials hire a form to help them evaluate a student’s qualifications to leave campus. University staff feel overworked and underpaid and see a ton of things on their desk that compete with every new form that arrives on their desk. And every form represents between five-to-thirty minutes of menial tasks. They hire a form to regulate what otherwise would be inconsistent chaos and favouritism and not knowing who approved what, or when. They hire a form to help people throughout an organization evaluate and facilitate answering each student’s question fairly and accurately.

In essence, a form isn’t just a means to ask questions. A form is hired to help answer questions—quickly and accurately.

My tasks: UX Design, Service Design, Research & Development

I followed these paper forms into that black hole. My UX researcher and I analysed the review processes of 22 forms, distilling the policies that led to each application’s approval or denial. I conducted in-depth interviews with people along every human touchpoint for the University’s three most complex forms, and one of the simplest forms. I documented each person’s steps in experience flows.

Evolving user experience flows for two separate forms. Each column represents an individual user as the form is passed along from left-to-right: student, advisor, department chair, committee members, financial services, academic services, registrar. All decision points here are posed as (and simplified into) boolean circuits. Is student’s grade point average 3.0 or above? If true then the student’s application continues, if not we flag it.

I then designed the future experience flow moving eligibility checks off the shoulders of staff and onto a single button at the outset of the form. I designed mobile-first interfaces, a notification system, and a system that tracks the progress of our forms. I oversaw a team of developers who tracked down student data in three databases that would help us digitally answer yes or no to each eligibility check. I ran usability studies to refine the experience. Throughout design, I led and supported our agile development team to deliver user-testable iterations and rolling features and enhancements—right up through to the shipped product.

Summary of challenges & solutions

1. Automated eligibility check

CHALLENGE: For each student who submits a Leave of Absence form, staff and faculty members collectively spent a total of one full hour manually checking computer records to see if a student was eligible to submit the form: “Is the student’s grade point average above 3.0?” “Does the student owe any outstanding fees?” Comparing data to rules is what what computers were historically designed to do.

Each year, 500 students submitted this form. 50 of them are not eligible, yet ask for an exception, and so require a human touch to evaluate more closely. That leaves us with 450 students whose records can be verified digitally. In other words, every year staff and faculty lose 450 hours by manually check eligibilities—for just one of the University’s 22 paper forms. How might we take this menial task off the desks of staff and faculty?

SOLUTION: We created a single, student-facing button at the start of each form that checks if a student is eligible. Today, in the time it used to take for a student to download the old pdf, we now come back with an immediate answer: you are either eligible or not.

Mobile view screens of a student’s experience after tapping “Check your eligibility”. As this button rolls out across UCLA’s 22 paper forms, it saves between 300–450 hours of staff time per year.

2. Only ask necessary questions

  • CHALLENGE: In the paper forms, we had been asking students to fill out fields with data that we already had. Examples: what is your current program? your degree objective? your email address? and so on.
  • SOLUTION: Using a student’s existing login, we took a snapshot of student data, and auto-populated all information needed (most of which a student never has to see). Rather than entering data in 18 fields, we only asked a student to answer three-to-five questions for which we didn’t have answers in the data, such as why a student is requesting a leave of absence.
Here we use the question itself to educate a student about the policy requirements as they’re filling it out. Prior to this, a student had to search through a page of online policy to learn their options and the rules.

3. Progress transparency through a live “status view”

  • CHALLENGE: When a student completed and submitted a paper form (or previous online forms), she had no idea what process would follow, who was reviewing the form, or how long it would take to return to her.
  • SOLUTION: If ineligible, we immediately tell a student why and what she can do to become eligible. If eligible—after pressing submit—we immediately show a “status view” of her specific form. At the top is the average time to review and the expected completion date. Also at the top of the screen is the student’s name with a green check and the words “Submitted: a few seconds ago”. Below her name are all the other people and offices who must review the form. As each reviewer completes her review, a new green check appears next to that person’s name. It’s a progress bar. Everyone with a roll to play in this form can securely see the same status view.

4. Notification system and pre-checked (greenlit) review system

CHALLENGE: These paper forms sit on faculty and staff desks the majority of their time, waiting for sign-off. Why? Because sign-off takes between 5-to-30 minutes for a university official to compare a student’s record to policy. They have to carve out time in a busy schedule for this. Meanwhile, staff and students take time composing emails to periodically remind faculty members that they should sign off on these forms.

SOLUTION: We measurably reduced that time by

  • Pre-checking student eligibility so staff sign-off is about only things computers can’t know or check for us.
  • Creating a mobile-first, easy-to-use online review system that uses a faculty or staff member’s existing secure login.
  • Showing each reviewer a list of the eligibility checks we’ve already done on that student that they now don’t have to do.
  • Periodically reminding faculty and staff through a notification system that “it takes an average of three minutes to review”.
Empathising with the customer — before and after. I sketched these journeys to bring stakeholders onboard the process. The University shared it with campus as a way to telling the story of the experience.


  • A single button “Check my eligibility” replaced the bulk of the student-facing form.
  • As that eligibility button rolls out for each rollout of 22 forms, it prevents staff and faculty from losing between 300-450 hours of their time each year manually comparing digital student records to policy.
  • Ineligible students see their status within seconds rather than weeks or months. Students now immediately see the reason they were rejected in sympathetic and human-readable terms, and what steps they can take to become eligible.
  • Eligible students are now asked a few additional questions in a mobile-first, user-centric form. On submission, an eligible student sees a real-time estimation of when they can expect a decision, and can see each person or office reviewing it.
  • Faculty and staff now see only the pre-qualified (eligible) students, and only have to review them for questions that required a human-touch: please confirm that this doctor’s note is legitimate? is there anything that you know about the student that might suggest they should not be allowed to request this leave of absence?
  • The first student through this new system received his approval (by four faculty/staff reviewers) in 3.5 hours.
  • On the first form we launched with this system, we reduced the average time it took for faculty and staff to review from two weeks (paper) to now two days (digital).

Full-length story of this project:

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