Turning Human-Centered Principles into Possibilities: Quick Screener Connects People to Programs

By Luis Hernandez, Communications and Business Development Associate, Alluma

Whether it’s a parent trying to make ends meet while balancing multiple jobs, a college student seeking help to buy groceries while living in a high-rent area, or a recently unemployed person unable to pay their bills for the first time, most people at some point in their lives will need help accessing basic needs.

But we understand that there are barriers between people and programs. Eligibility systems can be hard to navigate. Portals can leave people with more questions than answers.

At Alluma, we are determined to break down the barriers that keep people from accessing support. It’s what led us to develop our Quick Screener, an online tool empowering people to determine their likely eligibility for CalFresh and Medi-Cal, California’s food and medical assistance programs. And to ensure our Quick Screener met the needs of the people it aims to serve, we had to dig in and see the disconnections firsthand.

In May 2019, we conducted observational usability testing with participants in Southern California who were intending to apply for public benefits. Based on our findings, we came back with three key takeaways that would make consumer-facing technology more human-centered and lead more people to complete their applications:

  1. Ensure that portals share how to find program information and where to apply for services.
  2. Address people’s uncertainty in applying for services by ensuring portals do not require account creation and other personal information to determine their eligibility.
  3. Give applicants the option to return to questions and use all the information they have on hand.

People need online tools to manage the complexities of their lives. They need to access services in simple, dignified, and effective ways. We took these principles and used them as the framework to not only strengthen our eligibility and enrollment systems but also build our Quick Screener.

1) Portals Need to Tell People How and Where to Apply

The foundation of the Quick Screener was built on making it easier for people to locate the opportunities that connect them to programs. Too often, people are left running around in circles trying to track down information on how to go about applying for services; the benefit applications themselves can be difficult to find.

One participant we observed, who had recently graduated from college and was seeking support for the first time, spoke about feeling confused trying to locate program information before going through the application process.

“I just want to know more about CalFresh! I am still in the dark,” they said after 40 minutes of looking for eligibility requirements for California’s food assistance program. “Just give me more information, not just if I can apply to it.”


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People need to know how benefits are going to help them. When online screening tools explain program details and guide people to see if services are right for them, it ensures that vulnerable communities get the assistance they need. For example, many college students and recent graduates might be managing a lot of responsibilities and may not have much time to spend searching for program requirements. We know that when  they are often struggling with tuition costs, loans, and costs of living. If they are able to find information more efficiently they can spend more of their time managing schoolwork and less time worrying about getting help – which in turn can impact their ability to success academically.

Tools should make it simpler for people to get assistance, not push them away. When building our Quick Screener, we addressed people’s need to learn about programs by:

  • Allowing someone to determine their potential eligibility to multiple programs, such as CalFresh and Medi-Cal, in one centralized location.
  • Leading them directly to the application for their county, so they don’t have to spend time tracking down the right application.
  • Providing other helpful resources on the Results page such as information about Lifeline, WIC, and CalWORKs.

Online portals can illuminate the path for someone to receive the support they need by providing effective ways for people to learn more about programs and show them the resources that exist for them to get the services they need.

2) Portals Should Only Ask the Essentials

Along with providing people details about programs, online tools should directly address the uncertainty people have about sharing their personal information. Applicants can be wary when navigating online portals. They can feel as if they are being put into “the system,” as one participant said, feeling concerned about the commitment of providing their information online.

This worry also occurs for applicants when they have to share details about themselves before they even know if they are eligible for programs. The participant we spoke with who recently completed their master’s degree mentioned, “Before applying, I want to know if I am eligible without talking to someone because there's that fear of like, okay, I just provided you all my information,” they said.

Applying for benefits can make someone feel stigmatized and concerned about the long-term ramifications of the information they are providing. That is why screening tools have to protect people’s information and ask only the necessary questions to determine eligibility.

Our Quick Screener reduces the wariness someone may feel navigating services by:

  • Enabling people to check their likely eligibility for programs without sharing personally identifiable information, including names, addresses, and ages.
  • Allowing unrestricted access to the tool, without the need to register or share an email address.

When we build our tools to encourage people to use them, we change uncertainty into empowerment by showing people that these tools are in fact meant to help them in a time when they need it most.

3) People Need Flexibility When Submitting Information

We need to understand that people’s lives are complex and they may not have immediate access to all the documents or research necessary to complete their application. When observing participants, we saw that even if a person had previously applied for benefits they could still face difficulties reapplying.

In one instance, a participant knew they had a prior case but had no idea of where to access that information.

“…I don't have the previous case information with me that's in storage. And, of course, I guess somebody will call me and I will let them know, yes, I did have a case.”

States and local agencies can have systems in place for applicants to recover accounts or prior case identification. This saves the person valuable time and reduces the workload for frontline staff.

Online portals can also provide more flexibility for people by allowing them to mention when they are unaware of how to answer questions and give estimates to answers when information is not readily available

Our Quick Screener simplifies the process of filling out the tool by:

  • Giving people the option to answer with “I don’t know.” This prevents people from leaving applications incomplete and reduces the stress of having to track down information.
  • Using brackets of income ranges for a person to input instead of having them use a specific dollar amount.

By simplifying the interactions people have using online tools and ensuring that they finish their application, even when they may not have all the answers, we give more flexibility for them to answer based on their lived experience.

Tools Need to Be Made for People to Connect to Services

Asking for help is not always easy but the path to getting it should be.

We hope these findings encourage you to think about how to create or enhance important solutions that put people first. The tools that have real impact must be made for real people, which can be done by simplifying processes, building solutions that understand the differences in people’s lives, and empowering people to ask for help when they need it most.

Connecting people to services is life-saving work, and having efficient ways for people to get support means more completed applications and more successful enrollments in programs.

Luis Hernandez is an award-winning multimedia content creator with a zeal for tech and entertainment. Currently, Hernandez is a Business and Communications Associate at Alluma where he develops internal communications strategy, writes multimedia blogs, and showcases organizational accomplishments. Follow Luis on LinkedIn and Twitter.