Designing & Testing the Common App

Using user-centered design to get more families into social service programs faster.


Once an individual finds a resource that can help them meet a basic need, we often see that the application and enrollment processes in public assistance and social service programs, like food stamps or Medicaid, are so lengthy, complicated and laborious that families frequently decide not to apply or drop off before submitting, and resulting in unfulfilled needs.

Millions of eligible individuals are simply not enrolling in benefits, with an incredible estimated $65 billion in government programs going unused. Research has shown that enrollment in these programs is critical to making a positive impact on families in the long term.

We set forth to create a single application for nonprofit and government social services, that we’re calling the Common App. One Degree’s product designer and researcher, Donna Chan, led our process, which included initial research, product design, a pilot, and measurement of outcomes.

Initial Research and Validation

While there are dozens of programs that could be valuable to families, we wanted to first prototype the concept with three programs. In order to develop an understanding of how the application and intake process works for these different programs, we interviewed 10 community members as well as five frontline caseworkers and directors at three government/nonprofit organizations:

  • San Francisco Human Services Agency (for CalFresh)
  • Children’s Council (for SF3C, a child care subsidies program)
  • San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department (for their scholarship program, which helps low-income residents access a range of public sports and recreation activities at significantly discounted rates).

“To develop an understanding of how the application & intake process works for different programs, we interviewed 10 community members as well as five frontline caseworkers and directors at three government/nonprofit organizations.” Click To Tweet

Some clear themes and pain points arose, which helped guide our initial designs:

  1. Applying for multiple benefits means double or triple the work

Multiple applications means not only a redundant and overwhelming process, but many community members may have to take off work or family duties in order to travel to and from the organization and spend time waiting on-site. Some community members said they were overwhelmed and quit the process halfway through or that they only felt confident completing their application with the help of a caseworker.

  1. Tech literacy varies

Many low-income families on the One Degree platform use smartphones as their primary or only device. Depending on age and exposure to technology, tech literacy varies, i.e. a person’s ability to appropriately and effectively use technology tools to access, manage, integrate, evaluate, create and communicate information.

  1. Document submission is one of the largest barriers in application processes

Our community may struggle to find all the necessary documents. In many cases, this requires that they make multiple trips to the organization’s office to present all the necessary documentation, resulting in many hours of travel and potentially wait time.

  1. Opportunity to increase exposure to different programs

Many first-time resource seekers find and apply for resources in daisy-chain fashion; that is, they find out about a second resource while they are applying for their first resource, and so on and so forth.


We went through iterative stages of design from wireframes to low-fidelity mockups to build the Common App prototype.

Guided by our initial research, we designed for potential barriers by:

  • Limiting the amount of information per page. By being conscious of the cognitive load required of users, we divided up the application questions page-by-page, seeking a balance between related groupings of questions and the energy or amount of consideration that each question would require.
  • Writing simple, easily comprehensible copy. Our members are most comfortable with copy that reads at or below a fourth-grade reading level, so we like to use to double-check readability.
  • Pre-filling fields wherever possible to reduce repetitive actions.
  • Designing for explicit affordance wherever possible. In other words, making the function or intention of buttons, field selectors, and other patterns or components as obvious as possible, for example, with clear labels, to anticipate varying levels of tech literacy.
  • Streamlining the document upload page so that all documents are requested on one page, and it is clear which documents are required and which are optional.

Pilot & Testing

Through partner organizations and other forms of outreach (i.e. flyer distribution, email blasts), we were able to connect with a total of 29 families in the span of two weeks with the help of my team and six partner organizations. We gave participants $20 Target gift cards in appreciation for their time.

Each 40-minute session was a mix of generative (i.e. exploratory) and evaluative (i.e. usability testing) research:

  1. Baseline information and context-setting: After gathering some demographic information, we asked some background questions to understand participants’ tech usage, tech literacy, and their previous experiences in applying for benefits.
  2. Usability testing: As the participant uses Common App, we asked them questions regarding specific tasks, regularly prompting for thoughts and feedback. We also captured any areas of confusion or frustration, as well as moments of delight. We made sure to measure time to completion.
  3. Feedback survey: Once the testing has completed, we asked participants to complete an anonymous feedback survey. The post-testing feedback survey aimed to gather Likert Scale data around ease-of-use, user satisfaction, Net Promoter Score (an index used to measure the willingness of people to recommend an organization’s products or services to others), and any related open-ended feedback.


In the table below you can see the time it took for applicants to apply for three programs using traditional offline methods (i.e. in-person or over the phone) compared to the Common App:

This analysis does not include the time saved gathering documents for each program application?—?anywhere from one to five hours. That’s because with Common App, documents are uploaded only once and then we submit them for each program.

Many of our participants said they were discouraged by previous attempts to apply for these programs, but that Common App was so easy it made them want to apply for even more.

Feedback Survey Results

We also gathered feedback from those who tested our prototype using a survey:

  • 86.7% of participants “Agree” or “Strongly agree” that the website was easy to use. Those who rated lower ease of use cited tech literacy limitations: “This would be easy for those who have basic computer knowledge or have a gadget.”
  • 91.7% of participants were “Satisfied” or “Very satisfied” with their experience of the Common App tool. When asked why, participants found the site “simple and easy” and appreciate “the idea that I can apply one time and submit to multiple organizations.”
  • 95% of participants were “Likely” or “Very likely” to recommend the Common App to friends and family.

“[Common App] is actually useful in so many ways; you don’t have to physically go to the many locations to apply and you can keep all of your documents safely at home while submitting online.” -Test participant

Key Learnings

Optimize for mobile to account for varying tech literacy

When using a laptop or desktop computer, many were uncomfortable using a mouse and/or unfamiliar with the concept of scrolling. However, the majority of participants own a smartphone as their primary or only device and therefore are very comfortable using it. As a result we optimized the Common App for use on smartphones and saw that participants were much faster and more comfortable completing the application on a mobile device.

Document upload

Participants initially were unsure which documents were required and which were optional, so we differentiated the groups through use of different headings and heading colors. For proof of income documentation (which is required for all the applications), some participants were in circumstances in which they were not working or did not have traditional forms of income documentation, like a pay stub. As a result, we worked with organizations to determine what was minimally acceptable for documentation and added a checkbox that, if checked, would alert the organization to follow up with the participant to obtain information or alternate forms of documentation.

Clearer copy

Although participants found most of the language in the Common App to be straightforward and easy-to-understand, some questions, like “How much money do you have on hand?,” prompted many questions from participants. Was this question asking for how much money they literally had on hand in that moment? If this question is asking about savings, then should they include their partner’s accounts? And how will this affect their eligibility or subsidy? Moving forward, we will continue to refine and test the copy to prevent confusion or misinterpretation.

Impact at Scale

Our approach as an organization is to always build tools that can eventually scale, even during the prototyping phase. We considered the viability of scaling the tool as a required measure of success from the outset. One Degree is continuing to refine the prototype based on community feedback, and we plan to roll out the Common App more broadly in 2018.

Imagine millions of low-income families being able to apply for the array of major poverty-fighting resources?—?food stamps, Medicaid, housing subsidies, child care programs?—?in one step, anywhere across the country. This is our vision. We will continue to iterate and improve upon Common App as we take this tool across the counties we serve.

The nonprofit sector often talks about helping families build a “path” out of poverty. With the Common App, we are trying to make that path more of a direct route. That’s why we do this work, building technology with the power to transform the social safety net at scale. With this Common App prototype, we’ve demonstrated the possibilities.

Thank you to Rey Faustino, CEO & Founder of One Degree, for contributing this piece. One Degree is a technology-driven nonprofit organization helping low-income families access the resources they need to achieve social and economic mobility.

If you’re excited about the potential of Lean Startup for social good, check out the newly released Lean Impact: How to Innovate for Radically Greater Social Good. Also, check out the rest of our blog series for more inspiring stories.

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