Hawai’i Benefits Finder: A User-Centric Approach to Government Service Delivery

From the RIPL Blog
Published December 13, 2023

Contributing Authors: 
Malavika Kumaran, Senior Product Manager
Kaitlin Sweetin, Deputy Director of Policy

Government benefit programs related to food, cash, and medical assistance provide a crucial safety net for many residents across the country. It is critical that these programs are simple to access, easy to understand, and provide people with the financial support they are entitled to as soon as possible. However, the administration of these programs is often siloed within distinct state agencies and the administrative divisions across programs can make it difficult for individuals to access the assistance they need. Many individuals face barriers to entry before they even reach the application stage – they may not be aware of which programs exist to help them, how to go about finding out if they are eligible, or where to enroll in programs that can provide essential support.  


Since January 2023, Research Improving People’s Lives (RIPL) has partnered with the State of Hawai’i to explore approaches toward furthering the State’s efforts to route and proactively inform residents about what State-provided supports they may be able to receive across agencies. After months of collaboration, discovery, and user research, RIPL and Hawai’i’s Department of Human Services (DHS) designed and developed the Benefits Finder, a digital tool to help Hawai’i residents quickly understand their eligibility for a set of health and human services programs through a single digital prescreening form. The Benefits Finder uses simple supportive language and can be completed in under five minutes. 


Benefits programs administered by DHS each have their own eligibility criteria, funding constraints, and federal reporting requirements. The design and development of the Benefits Finder combined a blend of detailed policy review with DHS staff to understand and communicate each of the programs core eligibility requirements, with iterative user research through interviews and testing exercises to refine the solution based on users needs identified through this process.  


Our collective goal was to create an integrated prescreening process for Hawai’i residents with the hypothesis that doing so would build prospective applicants confidence in what they may be eligible for, and the steps needed to get started. Ultimately, we hope to see more residents applying for benefits in Hawai’i 


In narrowing toward the initial design and scope of the Benefits Finder, we uncovered the following key learnings we hope will help others in the field to progress similar initiatives: 

1. A shared vision cultivates accountability to end-users and helps continually ground the work in service of user needs. 

2. Engaging users early, and strategically, drives focus when prioritizing what to build.  

3. Addressing business requirements and prioritizing user needs is not a zero-sum game, finding points of alignment results in more desirable shared outcomes.  

4. Collaboration with the wider ecosystem is key to efficiently delivering services to constituents, by sharing learnings across peers and partners and exploring integration at scale.

A Shared Vision Cultivates Accountability to End-Users
We were lucky to partner with a cross-departmental team at DHS who were committed to taking a user-centered and iterative approach to developing the Benefits Finder. Through a series of facilitated discussions, RIPL uncovered the needs, wants, and pain points expressed by Hawai’i residents, and gained an understanding of the priorities from the perspective of the program administrators and eligibility workers at DHS. A key milestone of our design phase was to co-develop design principles that would guide the course of our work together and express our shared vision. 

An early draft of design principles for the Benefits Finder.

These design principles served as a shared language around what was important to users throughout the design and development process. They also helped ground us as we began to consider business requirements, and ensured the decisions that were made continued to be in service of user needs. 


Engaging Users Early, and Strategically, Drives Focus 

With design principles in hand, we developed low-fidelity prototypes or “draft views” of what the Benefits Finder experience might entail to test with Hawai’i residents, especially those who may be underemployed or unemployed and may need additional income support. This exercise allowed us to test our early assumptions and decisions, further understand and empathize with the intended end users, and dig deeper into their expectations of a prescreening tool.  

An example of early concepts explored for the visual design of the Benefits Finder.

By collecting feedback directly from potential users, we were able to refine the problems we were seeking to address with the Benefits Finder, surface potential barriers to usage, and uncover additional expectations users had of this digital tool. 


Users validated the value in a prescreening tool, especially to be able to find simple and centralized information on multiple programs at once. Other key needs stated by users were to have this digital form be accessible by mobile and desktop, and in multiple languages representative of the diverse communities in Hawai’i.  

Identifying patterns in users’ feedback and articulating their most prevalent needs contributed significantly to productive conversations and decisions with DHS program staff when prioritizing what to build.  


Addressing Business Requirements and Prioritizing User Needs Is Not a Zero-Sum Game  

Throughout the process, we regularly found points of alignment in what users were seeking, DHS’s intended outcomes, and what was feasible in a short time frame to build as a minimum viable product (MVP) 


Users wanted a prescreening tool that was easy to understand and quick to use, did not require them to provide private or sensitive information, and would give them information about resources regardless of their eligibility status for specific programs. These needs were aligned with DHS’s goals to make more residents aware of the programs that are available to them, provide residents with easy access to information on the onset to help ensure they can find and enroll in support programs as quickly as possible, and direct them to the broader network of support services available.  

This resulted in a significantly more streamlined MVP version of the prescreening tool than what we may have otherwise built solely based on the initial program and policy review of complex eligibility and reporting requirements.  


Collaboration with the Wider Ecosystem is Key to Efficiently Delivering Services to Constituents  

The Benefits Finder in Hawai’i is RIPL’s first step to tackling the challenges that users face when trying to access benefits. We intend to continue to iterate on the solution with Hawai’i and learn from other peers and partners working to reduce barriers in access to health and human services benefits across the country.  


In the short term, RIPL is exploring partnerships that accelerate impact for residents in the states where we work. For example, we are exploring how RIPL’s work with labor departments delivering career recommendations and matching can intersect with CiviForm. CiviForm is an open-source tool supported by Google.org that dramatically decreases the time-tax on a user by prepopulating the formal program application with data captured by the screener. CiviForm’s full functioning back-end also supports program administrators to easily update screener questions and use templatized forms to create more efficient program applications and screeners.  


In the longer term, RIPL is interested in exploring how using the information entered during pre-screening in combination with additional data a State may already have, can accelerate, or reduce steps in the process by prepopulating the formal program application for prospective applicants to finalize. Utilizing data the state already has access to through various departments and programs has the potential to ease the burden on residents and accelerate benefit participation gaps that exist across states.  


During a time when quick, easy wins are needed most, technology that reaches across government silos is the solution to delivering benefits programs quickly and efficiently to constituents. There is still more work to be done, and generous support from funders like the Walmart Foundation, who supported the Hawai’i Benefits Finder project as part of its efforts to help modernize the social safety net, ensures that RIPL can be on the forefront and continue to work towards more impactful change for residents in Hawai’i and across the nation.  


About RIPL 
Research Improving People’s Lives (RIPL) is a leading tech-for-social-impact nonprofit whose mission is to work with governments and help them use data, science, and technology to equitably improve policy and lives. Generous funding from federal partners and private organizations allows RIPL to build data-driven digital solutions to policy issues like the Benefits Finder. RIPL’s work has been covered in Politico (‘How ‘Netflix for Jobs’ could aid in the Great Resignation’ and ‘17 pandemic innovations that are here to stay’), as well as in Route Fifty, The Hill, GovTech, PBS NewsHour, StateTech, The Future of Work podcast, Forbes, the National Governor’s Association, Brookings, and the Boston Globe. 


RIPL publishes scientific research and open-source code to ensure that governments can learn from implementations in other states and implement solutions at no cost. To learn more about the scientific and technical insights powering Benefits Finder, DOORS and the Research Data Lake, please visit our website.