Poverty & Safety Net

Ohio Benefits Self-Service Portal Gets Important Upgrade; Ohio Starts to Commit to Human Centered-Design

Rachel Cahill
Visiting Fellow | Public Benefits
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April 11, 2022
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By: Rachel Cahill, Visiting Fellow, Public Benefits Jami Turley, Ohio Benefits System User  

Ohioans have long faced problems using Ohio’s online application and case management system for key work supports, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, and Ohio Works First (OWF). In November 2020, Community Solutions published a paper entitled, Prioritize Customer Needs in Ohio Benefits System: Findings and Recommendations from the Ohio Benefits User Experience Study, developed in coordination with three community-based partners across Ohio. The paper gained the attention of the press (see here, here, and here). In response to the study, the state agencies overseeing Ohio’s SNAP and Medicaid programs publicly committed to improving the customer experience.

 We take the findings to heart and are committed to improving the consumer experience with Medicaid’s program. – Lisa Lawless, Spokesperson for Ohio’s Department of Medicaid, November 2020.

A year later, Ohio took an important step towards making good on that promise with a significant upgrade to the Ohio Benefits (OB) Self-Service Portal. Thanks to dedicated SNAP funding provided as part of the American Rescue Plan Act[1] that Congress passed in March, Ohio made the following improvements to the OB Self-Service Portal in December 2021:

  1. The Self-Service Portal is now mobile-device friendly. This means the website automatically adjusts to the correct screen size when accessed from a smartphone and has phone-friendly touch-features for entering information. This is a critical improvement, as only 37 percent of respondents in the Ohio Benefits User Experience Study reported having a computer with internet access at home, while 73 percent said they can access the internet through a mobile phone.[2]
  2. Users can provide verifications by uploading a photo of a document. This was a high priority change for consumers, since missing verification documents is one of the primary reasons for application denial. Now users can snap an image of their verification document, rather than needing to use a copy machine or fax machine.
  3. Enhanced password reset functionality. Another welcome improvement recommended by participants in the Ohio Benefits User Experience Study, this new functionality will reduce the number of users who are locked out of their Self-Service Portal accounts. Previously, customers locked out of their accounts were required to create new accounts that then had to be manually linked to their existing benefits case by a JFS employee.
 A mobile app that captures photographs of required documents would dramatically simplify the enrollment process.” – Ohio Benefits User Experience Study, November 2020.

Since the November 2020 publication of the Ohio Benefits User Experience Study, the Ohio agencies responsible for the Ohio Benefits system – including the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS), the Department of Administrative Services (DAS), and the Ohio Department of Medicaid (ODM) – deserve credit for doing more to engage with community partners and application assisters throughout Ohio. For example, shortly before the OB Self-Service Portal upgrade was released in December 2021, ODJFS invited representatives from community organizations, including food banks that frequently use the portal to help their clients apply for SNAP and other benefits, to a virtual meeting to demonstrate the new features. The agencies also set up a “bridge line” for community partners that are high-volume users of the portal to report problems or glitches in the weeks immediately following the system upgrade. The agencies continue to respond promptly and with urgency to new issues and glitches identified by community partners and has instructed Ohio’s technology vendor to deploy technical fixes within weeks of problem identification.

 Only 37 percent of respondents in the Ohio Benefits User Experience Study reported having a computer with internet access at home.

Community Solutions has also been encouraged by signs of an increased commitment to human-centered design principles from Ohio. In the Governor’s Executive Budget for Fiscal Year 2022-2023, for example, ODJFS committed to “utilize more user centric design practices for system development and upgrades.” [3] This commitment has led to several emerging initiatives planned for 2022 and beyond. The Center for Community Solutions, along with many community partners around the state and the customers they serve, stand ready to Ohio’s agencies on this journey.

One customer’s frustrating experience with the Ohio Benefits self-service portal

As soon as the dust settled on the December 2021 upgrade to the OB Self-Service Portal, I wanted to better understand whether these changes that appeared so important to community partners were really making a difference in the lives of JFS’ actual customers. The true experts on benefits access are the individuals who participate in work support programs, like SNAP and Medicaid, to make ends meet. So, I called Jami.  

Jami is a hardworking grandmother in her 50s who lives in rural Wayne County, Ohio. Jami runs her own cleaning business and lives with her adult son who does landscaping work while also managing a complex health condition. Jami and her son qualify for SNAP and Medicaid, which provide stable access to the medical care and proper nutrition that her son needs to manage his illness. Jami’s SNAP benefits were due for recertification in February 2022, so I asked if she would be willing to try using the Self-Service Portal and write down her experiences. Here is what Jami shared:

Let me start with my overall experience trying to use the Self-Service Portal has been extremely frustrating. I can honestly say it is one of the most difficult websites I’ve ever tried to use involving an account with my personal information.

Problems Linking My Case

The first time I tried to use the portal was in 2020. I was able to make an account and then I had to request to “Link My Case.” I received a message that my request was “successfully submitted” but not that the case was actually linked. I was unable to view my benefits status or use any other functionality. I tried again in February 2021 and went through the steps to “Link My Case” for a second time. I received the same message as before and still could not access any of my case information. I then became frustrated with the website and gave up.

After learning that updates had recently been made to the website, I decided to try once again to access my account in order to complete my SNAP recertification and report changes. After logging into my account, I tried to access my benefits and was directed to “Link My Case” yet again. A few days later, I decided to call the phone number for the Ohio Benefits Help Desk listed at the top of the website (844-640-6446). The phone call with a Help Desk representative lasted 30 minutes. We went through several steps to try to resolve the issue to no avail. The representative said that my case was already “linked” so he could not explain why I was unable to access my benefits information or upload documents. He suggested it might be a browser problem. The next day I spent two hours trying three different browsers and four different devices to access my benefits. I was unable to do so on all attempts.

Rachel later shared my case example with the SNAP agency. My case example resulted in the state’s IT vendor identifying a critical glitch affecting “authorized representatives” (which I am for my son). Thankfully, that glitch was fixed as part of an emergency software release on February 26, and I am now, finally, able to access my benefits information through the portal.

Recertification Challenges

Aside from the problems linking my case, the Help Desk representative explained that I would not be able to complete my recertification through the Self-Service Portal anyway because that part of the website wasn’t working properly due to the recent upgrade. (This was not communicated anywhere on the website.) So I resigned myself to completing the time-consuming renewal process as I had in the past. Doing so required me to:

1. Keep an eye out for renewal paperwork in the mail that I must fill out and return

2. Drop the paperwork off at Wayne County JFS (since I’ve had problems in the past relying on the mail to ensure the documents arrive on time)

3. Call the JFS Call Center at my scheduled appointment time for the mandatory interview (only to have to hang up after 45 minutes on hold because I was now late for my cleaning job)

4. Call again after receiving a “Notice of Missed Interview” in the mail after I couldn’t get through the first time, which warns that my SNAP benefits will be cut off otherwise

5. Submit additional documents requested by the caseworker during the interview, including a form from my son’s previous employer confirming that he no longer works there

6. Drive a copy of the form to the employer to complete and personally delivering it back to Wayne County JFS after the employer didn’t respond to the original inquiry

7. Wait and wait for my recertification to be approved (it was finally approved on March 11)

8. Further postpone a desperately needed car repair in order to keep food on the table while I waited for my recertification to be approved. If my car breaks down before I can fix it, I won’t be able to get to work, derailing all of the progress I’ve been making to stabilize my life since the pandemic began.

Other Design Flaws

While struggling to navigate the website on my own, several design flaws stood out to me. Without someone explaining it to me, I would have never known that…

* A red line under the “Apply for Assistance” tab would be the place for uploading documents. I assumed it would be under “Manage My Case” and “Report a Change” but you can’t upload any documents there

* The way to get back to the homepage of the website was by clicking on the Ohio logo next to the menu bar

* To read my messages, I had to download them and then open them with Adobe software (I couldn’t just view them in the browser like other PDF files)

* I am by no means an expert using the computer. However, I do know how to use a computer and the internet. If it was this hard for me to use the portal, I understand why many other people quickly become discouraged and give up. I hope by writing about my experience, Ohio will partner with customers like me to design a better website.

Missing the Forest for the Trees

Jami’s story better explains than I ever could how the current development process for the OB Self-Service Portal is “missing the forest for the trees.” Community partners put together a checklist of necessary changes to the Self-Service Portal, and within one year, some important changes were made. But that’s not human-centered design. That’s not designing, building and testing a product based on the needs and input of actual consumers.

 These are the people you should have around the table when you’re designing a system. Look over their shoulder while they’re typing, or while they’re on their phone. Understand the user experience. And you’ll get a better product.– Rachel Cahill, for Cleveland.com article in November 2020.

Later this year, Ohio’s Department of Administrative Services (DAS) is scheduled to begin a new procurement process for an eligibility system vendor to maintain and enhance the Ohio Benefits system, in consultation with ODJFS and the Ohio Department of Medicaid (ODM). This means Ohio has an opportunity to re-think which aspects of the system are prioritized and which outcomes to measure. We have some recommendations:

  • First and foremost, Ohio should define the positive outcomes that the Self-Service Portal should achieve, rather than simply developing a list of functions that the system must be able to do, regardless of how user-friendly those functions are.
  • Ohio should hire an experienced firm that specializes in human-centered design and user experience research to work alongside Ohio’s technology vendor to ensure that customer needs and usage patterns are at the center of the design and development process.
  • Ohio should begin collecting and monitoring a consistent set of metrics on user behavior to understand where customers, like Jami, are getting stuck in the Self-Service Portal. For example:  
  • How many users are quitting the application before hitting submit? Which questions or screens are they getting stuck on?  
  • How many users have successfully submitted documents? How often is this happening at the time of application vs. after the application or recertification form has been submitted? How many customers are submitting documents after enrollment to report a change?  
  • How many users have successful submitted an interim report or recertification through the Self-Service Portal? For those who didn’t successfully submit, where did they get stuck?Each of these missed opportunities for customers to use the Self-Service Portal directly translates into extra work for county JFS workers and drives up call center wait times.  

To better understand how the private sector develops technology products for consumers, I reached out to my brother, the Principal Product Designer at Dropbox. Here’s what he had to say about the importance of tracking consumer metrics.

 Collecting important metrics on how people interact with the product is essential. Great products are never built by a genius idea. They come from the scientific method of testing, observing, and improving – by building the muscle of iteration.– Chris Meeks, Principal Product Designer at Dropbox

Until Ohio is routinely collecting and monitoring detailed Self-Service Portal usage data, we won’t know whether the new investments we’ve made in the Ohio Benefits system are paying off.[4]

Here’s the bottom line: Listen to customers!

Ohio must continue to focus new investments in human-centered design, including for the OB Self-Service Portal. Practically, this means bringing bring customers, and other users of the Self-Service Portal, into the design conversation as early as possible. This also means holding vendors accountable for performance metrics that tangibly demonstrate when the Ohio Benefits system is meeting or exceeding expectations.  

Are you a JFS customer who is currently having trouble using the Self-Service Portal? You can call the Ohio Benefits Help Desk at 1-844-640-6446 to report the problem.  

After selecting language (press 1 for English), select option “3,” then “2,” then “3” to reach a live Help Desk agent. Keep in mind that this line is not staffed by caseworkers who can directly address your case issues, but they do document and track reported problems and send them to agency decisionmakers.  

After you call the Help Desk, we’d love to hear your story. You can email us at info@communitysolutions.com.  

[1] See SNAP State Administrative Funding Letter for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, April 29, 2021, available at https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/resource-files/SNAP-administrative-funding-letter.pdf  

[2] See Figure 7; https://comsolutionst.wpengine.com/research/prioritize-customer-needs-ohio-benefits-system/  

[3] Ohio Executive Budget – FY22-23, Page 363: https://archives.obm.ohio.gov/Files/Budget%5Fand%5FPlanning/Operating%5FBudget/Fiscal%5FYears%5F2022-2023/ExecutiveBudget/Book1%5FBudgetRecommendations/Sections/BudgetRecommendations%5FFY2022-2023%5FSectionD-AgencySection.pdf  

[4] In response to these questions from Community Solutions, the agencies overseeing the Ohio Benefits system committed to sharing this user information as soon as it becomes available. CCS will update this blog once this additional information is provided.

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