Sept. 26, 2018
One of my favorite experiences from the past year was waiting with someone in line. We were at a clinic designed to help pair green card holders with volunteers to complete their naturalization application. In order to naturalize, she would have to fill out the N-400, a 20 page form that comes with 18 pages of instructions. The form is complicated and most can’t do it alone, similar to how many people rely on outside help with our taxes. We talked about why she wanted to naturalize (to help reunite her family), who was with her (her niece, who she jokingly called her secretary), and what annoyed her the most (the long wait time). When I asked her what she thought could be improved about the process, her answer stuck with me: she wished she could have done more of the work on her phone while she waited.
This answer stood out because, ironically, she fit a few different criteria that many nonprofits cite for why they need to do their work on paper, like her age and an assumption about her tech savviness. Even though she fit the demographics they assumed would most likely prefer paper, she was fully ready to go digital.
There are a lot of assumptions about this population — they’re less tech savvy, they don’t have the money, they think they won’t pass the tests — but this information is anecdotal.
Someone recently asked me, “if you had a magic wand, how would you fix the naturalization process?” My immediate answer was “make every step of the process free.” I know that it isn’t necessarily the right answer and, in a world where that’s a seemingly unreasonable request, my next answer was to understand why people aren’t naturalizing and fix that. While around 750,000 people are naturalized each year, there is a larger pool of over 8 million lawful permanent residents that seem to qualify but do not apply to naturalize. There are a lot of assumptions about this population — they’re less tech savvy, they don’t have the money, they think they won’t pass the tests — but this information is anecdotal. We don’t have a deep enough understanding of is what specifically prevents them from applying.
Naturalization has been a focal point in my work over the past year. There are many nonprofits that help people with this process, either through direct assistance or legal services, there are for-profit ventures that are making it easier than ever to fill out your paperwork, and even the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services has launched an online web app for naturalization. The general focus is on making the application process as easy as possible, but not many organizations have looked at what failure points prevent people from applying.
Over the next several months, we’re building out a team to tackle this problem. We will travel around the country and interview lawful permanent residents that have yet to naturalize to learn more about why. We’re approaching the problem as user researchers, trying to turn insights into actionable information as often as possible. It seems unlikely now that a piece of technology can fix this problem, but we are confident that there are artifacts, like user personas, that can enrich the work others are doing in this space.
It seems unlikely now that a piece of technology can fix this problem, but we are confident that there are artifacts, like user personas, that can enrich the work others are doing in this space.
It is undoubtedly a fraught time for the immigration space. As national debates highlight our values on issues like family separation and reunification, nonprofits are on the front lines to defend and provide support to the immigrant community. They’re forced to make difficult decisions on what to spend precious time and resources. Many technologists want to support overwhelmed nonprofits, but their efforts to create applications or tools are often repetitive. There are a number of “know your rights” manuals or “deportation” apps that are well intentioned, but have high degrees of overlap or questionable usefulness. These endeavors fail for a variety of reasons, but it often seems like the end user’s habits and journey are not well reflected in the software. The insights from this cross-country research could provide valuable decision making information, both for nonprofits and their allies.
Rather than trying to shift the way that nonprofits work, we now hope to empower them with more information and introduce them to other tools from the tech sector.
We came to the decision to focus on naturalization research because of the information intake process redesign that we did in coordination with a local nonprofit this year. We learned a lot through this work, especially about how difficult it is to centralize decision making and encourage technology use in the nonprofit space. Rather than trying to shift the way that nonprofits work, we now hope to empower them with more information and introduce them to other tools from the tech sector, like user research and prototyping, and show them how our design discovery process works so that they can more strongly and efficiently fulfill their missions.
We’re going to continue working with nonprofits on a one-to-one basis, but will also expand how we partner with larger coalition groups to leverage their networks to advance change. The work we’ve done so far has been critical in helping us identify successful implementation strategies and build partnerships. Now, as we enter the next phase in our immigration work focused on researching barriers to naturalization, we hope to engage a wider array of nonprofits and expand the scope of not just our impact— but the impact of immigration advocates across the country.