Volunteer Spotlight: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance

Since mid-March, the number of unemployment claims in the U.S. has totaled over 36 million — an unprecedented level of joblessness not seen since the Great Depression. During this crisis, governments have shouldered the burden of processing an exponential rise in claims while implementing a new benefits category known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), in addition to augmenting their existing unemployment insurance (UI) programs. (Read more about state PUA roll-outs and the unique challenges posed by legacy systems in our Technical Notes from the Field and this piece from U.S. Digital Response (USDR) co-founder Jen Pahlka.)

At USDR, a group of volunteers has been working hard to address the first critical step: the benefits application, which has been a pain point for the newly unemployed and state governments alike. PAPUA, or Pilot Application for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, is USDR’s prototype of a streamlined intake form. To the applicant, it reduces confusion and allows personal information to be inputted with ease. To the state, it provides a customizable form and an efficient way to route a high volume of unemployment applications. The PAPUA form and data operate on a secure, cloud-based host to reduce strain on state systems.

Amazingly, the first working prototype for PAPUA was built during a one-day sprint — a true rapid response — just in time to debut at a meeting of the National Governors Association. Here are some of the volunteers who helped make PAPUA happen.

“Demos not Memos”

“There are so many things giving people anxiety right now. Giving them one less to worry about is pretty impactful.” — Marcie Chin, USDR volunteer on PAPUA

For Marcie Chin, this project was personal. A product manager with 15 years of experience, she started off her career in the Web 2.0 era, when product management was still a nascent field and “nobody knew what they were doing.” That meant she had to make up her own rules — first, in the world of early music streaming and more recently, as a freelance product strategist. When COVID-19 hit, her contract work for a major airline company evaporated overnight. She ended up applying for unemployment in the state of New York and faced a notoriously difficult process with a crashing site and overloaded call center.

Marcie decided to volunteer with USDR in order to apply her skillset and extra time to a meaningful cause. And that first-hand pain from applying for PUA incentivized her to join the PAPUA project, to help make the application more robust for people, like herself, who recently lost work.

Marcie’s sense of compassion helped her be effective. During calls with states, she saw government staff in crisis trying to help struggling constituents, but who were themselves struggling against big technology challenges. In one memorable UX work session, her product strategist brain kicked in after hearing state workers explain the problem in connecting PUA to the state’s unemployment system. She noticed an inability to visualize the situation was the barrier to decision-making. With a digital whiteboarding tool, Marcie quickly drew up a user flow chart in less than two minutes and as she did so, the energy shifted in real time. By providing a visual demo, Marcie brought much-needed clarity to the discussion. By bringing compassion, she helped unite the team behind a path forward.

Accessible Design For All

“This kind of work is why I became a product designer. This was a passion project in every sense of the word.” — Dylan Kim, USDR Volunteer on PAPUA

When Dylan Kim joined USDR to work on pandemic unemployment assistance, he found a mission and a team that inspired him to push for success. As a product designer by profession, he brought a thoughtful approach to designing the look-and-feel of PAPUA’s user interface.

A major focus for Dylan was making sure that PAPUA’s web-based application form, intended for government agencies, would satisfy the requirements for web content accessibility referred to as WCAG 2.0. At a time when many are still sheltering at home, an accessible intake form is a matter of equal opportunity. Proper consideration of certain factors — such as color palette, readability, and keyboard navigation — ensures that all users, including those with visual or physical disabilities, can gain access to resources. After careful research, Dylan helped PAPUA select a design system (Grommet) that would not only be compatible with their engineering framework, but importantly, would come with built-in capability for creating accessible buttons, menus, and other components.

To achieve even greater usability, however, Dylan and team PAPUA also had to plan for a mobile version of the application form. According to a recent study, approximately 20% of Americans do not have desktop access at home and use the internet solely through mobile phones. A mobile-friendly site could help close that digital divide. To see the vision, check out Dylan’s mock-ups (below) of a sample mobile intake form that states can use to bring relief to those hit hardest.

User-Focused Engineering

“It was interesting to see something impacting so many people that we could actually fix.” — Frances Thai, USDR volunteer on PAPUA

As a USDR volunteer, Frances Thai achieved something she didn’t know she could do as a software engineer: use her skills for real social impact. Working on PAPUA meant she could help fix (or at least try to fix) the major unemployment crisis that suddenly dominated headlines. In some ways, Frances was the ideal candidate to take on PAPUA’s task of form building. As a product engineer with strong front-end skills, she is naturally user-focused and always thinking about how to make it easier for the customer.

That user-focused mindset proved critical for implementing form validation — in other words, making sure the PAPUA prototype would be fully functional and wouldn’t break whenever users enter in their data. To validate a form submission, the process starts with the most basic sub-unit — the question field. Is the answer supposed to be a numeric value? Is this field required? From there, the validation protocol expands to the page level and then the entire form, while changes are stored in a separate object to avoid nested decision trees. Frances and her fellow engineers also made the form intentionally “slow” to guide applicants along an orderly workflow and reduce the chance for mistakes.

With that knowledge base in hand, Frances consulted on the unemployment application for a state that was using an intake system that lacked proper validation. Then using the PAPUA model, she helped develop an eligibility screener for residents of New Jersey to see which benefits they qualify for. These are just some of the ways that USDR’s learnings have proven extensible across state borders.

Feeling inspired? Volunteer Now. Join U.S. Digital Response as a volunteer to help solve the technological challenges of COVID-19. Sign up here.

If you work in government and would like to learn more about PAPUA, please sign up online here.

This post was prepared by Lina Zhu and Reshma Khilnani.



U.S. Digital Response (USDR) places experienced, pro-bono technologists to work with government and organizations responding to crisis, to quickly deliver services and infrastructure that support the critical needs of the public. We’re nonpartisan, fast, and free.

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