Empathic Design in the U.S. Immigration Services Portal

At first sight the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (uscis.gov) portal is as expected — sporting the banal palette and the perfunctory ineffectiveness of American bureaucracy.

Government websites are not known for their cutting edge technological capabilities or innovative graphic/UX design. As a culture, we forgive them their usability sins for the vital services they provide. It is increasingly necessary to view design as intentional communication– not aesthetics, not passive transmission of information via the internet– intentional top-down communication.

User experience, design, and librarianship are career fields that require a certain level of emotional intelligence. A basic understanding of the internal experiences of others, if missing, can be supplemented by user-centered research. If all else fails, ask the users. Evaluating the Immigration Services portal means to evaluate the service design of the Immigration Services Department. As user experience researchers and designers and American citizens our work requires a new kind of vigilance. Grappling with the social implications of the language and visual treatments of a public service department is an act of advocacy.


As a citizen under a violent autocracy it is a responsibility and an act of rebellion.


A mix of basic emotional intelligence and research over the last few weeks show that the most common emotions reported by immigrants are hope and anxiety.  The content and structure of the Immigration Services website are dismissive of the needs of a huge portion of its users. The language is unsupportive of users with lower English literacy levels as if all peoples internationally are comfortable with a) English b) legal jargon and c) the immigration process and requirements. Accessing translation features is challenging.There are irrefutable social implications of its poor usability.

“Other languages” can operate only as an intentional implication that English is the official language of the United States or a sub-conscious exclusion of non-English speaking immigrants. This language is accusatory and manipulative. If a user were a victim of a genocide or human trafficking it is likely that they select “yes” having been involved in those crimes in “any” capacity “ever.” Responses to this question greatly impact the applications result. With no indication of the context of the question or response, how the answer may represent a user has dangerous outcomes. As an oversight or offensive action, questions of this nature systematically eliminate vulnerable applicants.

The complicated language and mail-in process of applying lowers confidence in user performance and the system/process. It does not create trust between user and institution. By, for example adapting these printable documents to interactive forms users would be alerted to invalid answers, provide space for contextualizing and feedback, and help to streamline the application process conserving emotional and mental energy on both sides of the application. The change would also streamline the process of updating forms reducing waste, quickening application review, lower work loads for department employees allowing usability to be evaluated and improved more frequently.
It is the responsibility of the researchers and designers to create systems that alleviate these stressors. As students we remember the most fundamental lesson of Don Norman’s work. User-centered design is not about making things not not painful but for making them pleasurable. Understanding this allows us to think more critically of the context in which our work functions and its social and cultural relevance. As designers, librarians, researchers (and humans), a life’s work should be most essentially to make other lives better.

Design Critique: Brooklyn Public Library – Immigrant Services

Brooklyn Public Library’s Immigrant Services page provides access to the library’s resources including social workers, legal aid, and printable documents. The homepage uses graphics, text in 21 languages, and paths to and from related pages throughout BPL’s website. BPL’s institutional pride is providing comprehensive community services and universal accessibility. The opportunity to utilize “radical innovation” (p. 281) in its public-facing technologies is not entirely matched to its rate of social innovation.

This critique will evaluate the Immigrant Services page through four selected attributes of Human-Centered-Design: discoverability, signifiers, feedback, and empathy.

Discoverability begins with the centrally located language drop-down menu. This feature affords access to services to most users quickly and easily. The welcome banner is an effective approach to empathetic design, recognizing the intimidating traits of Immigration Services departments. However, the translations would be more accessible as a top navigation bar or hyperlinked through the “Welcome!” image at the top of the page. This change would eliminate the need to for users to be familiar with the Google Translate icon or the English term “languages.” The use of English in the languages drop-down menu headings inhibits access and puts the burden of discovery on the user. Using english words as a signifier for alternative language affordances is unsuccessful and should be exchanged for headings listed in each language’s own words like the bottom of the side navigation bar (see image below). This oversight illustrates Norman’s point that a “lack of attention to customer needs in even simple things is often symptomatic of larger issues” (p. 163). To act empathetically is to consider the immense vulnerability of immigrants at this time and avoid any possible assumption of this issue.

Because of the broad scope of users and the confusing nature of government documents, signifiers must be explicit. Here signifiers include icons, images, and the universal underlined blue text of a hyperlink. Signifiers should be activity-centered, based less on institutional aesthetic standards and more on the simplification of bureaucratic processes. Designing for positive visceral reactions means adding welcome materials, easily accessible contact information, and a less formal site structure. Page headers like “Arts & Culture: World Language and Family Programs” should not be similar in color to the hyperlinks. This is creates a false signifier and confusion. Cultural differences and the inaccuracy of Google Translate complicate this further. The current design affords human error and is therefore bad. Designers should consider that “the idea that the person did something wrong is deeply entrenched in our society” (p. 66). The “Resources Guides” section houses a key function for the site that potentially proves more vital than “Books, movies and more” and should be positioned directly below the calendar. This builds a hierarchy of priority information. The Resources Guide has clearly labeled service categories with succinct descriptions that serve users of multiple languages and varying levels of literacy. This move also creates a natural mapping between Events like “Citizenship Class” and related resources.

Signifiers should work in tandem with feedback to comfortably lead users to the resources available to them. As Norman says, slips occur most often due to a distracted mind (p. 206). Feedback should match the industry standard of 0.1 seconds (p. 206) to ensure that users in high activity areas or experiencing increased emotions have the best possible experience. Interruptions in busy areas like public libraries require affirmation of actions and explicit directions. Errors are increasingly likely because of the sensitive nature of user needs (p. 163, 198). For this reason undo tools, checklists, and confirmation/error messages should be available for any registration or completion of applications. Undo capabilities to such actions provides comfort on the reflective level of evaluation. Signifiers should be clarified through the recommendations above and stock images should be chosen that relate more directly to the resources in each section. In the case of signifier-failure and feedback-failure due to system limitations physical constraints should be applied to prevent incorrect registration or submission of incomplete documents. Creating welcoming features is as essential as creating forgiving features specifically on translated pages (p. 171). Positive psychology should be incorporated into all feedback including affirmations, positive redirections, and avoidance of harsh language in added error messages of which there are currently none.