Project 1

Redesign of Earnings Queries System

Project Summary:

The goal of the project was to modernize an old green screen application, Earnings Queries, and replace it with a new web-based application. SSA technicians use the Earnings Queries system to view and research customer and beneficiary earnings records. 


For example, if a customer wants to begin earning retirement benefits, an SSA technician must verify that they have the necessary work credits required to receive them using the Earnings Queries system. Another example is if a customer notices a discrepancy in their earnings record and reports it to SSA, such as a missing year or an incorrect earnings amount, an SSA technician uses Earnings Queries to research the customer’s work history to verify the error. 


This was an Agile project. The Team included the Product Owner, 2 UX specialists, analysts, developers, testers and a scrum master. My role in the project was Lead UX Designer. 


UX Process: 

  • Product Discovery

  • User Interviews 

  • Creation of conceptual models

  • Validation of conceptual model via usability testing

  • Analyze data obtained from usability testing of conceptual model; determine key findings

  • Present findings and recommendations to the Agile team

  • Agile Process initiated

    • Begin building the backlog 

    • Stories added for UX team to begin designing a functional prototype 

  • Prototyping in Axure (see Project 2)

    • Iteration and refinement of design as needed

    • Additional usability testing as needed (on-going)


The Problem:

The UX team conducted three rounds of interviews with users (SSA Technicians) to discover why and when they use the Earnings Queries system, their likes and dislikes, pain points, and how it can be improved. A few of our findings included:

  • There are five queries that SSA technicians can use to assist them with number holder claims or reported discrepancies. 

  • In the current system, each query is a separate screen, which means the technicians must go back and forth between green screens, and change pages many times. They are not linked together.

  • This becomes very cumbersome for the two queries that are used multiple times a day: Summary Earnings and Detail Earnings. 

    • Summary Earnings Query: A listing of earnings by year

    • Detail Earnings Query: Details of earnings by year including employer(s) information, and W2 information such as total wages, taxes paid, tips, Medicare, etc.

  • Some query searches result in several pages of data but the current application can only display one small screen at a time. 

  • The screens of the green screen application are hard to read, and hard on the eyes.

  • The layout of the data displayed on the screen is not well formatted, which makes it hard to interpret.

  • Technicians must begin an entire new search if they want to change search parameters.

  • Help is not available within the current green screens; the technician must go to the intranet if they need assistance


The Solution

The UX team began brainstorming ideas for a new Earnings Queries application that would modernize the existing application as well as address user pain points, wants and needs. Some of the UX Team’s recommendations included:

  • A “one-stop shop” approach: Instead of forcing technicians to go back and forth between many screens to complete queries, all queries would be easily available from a centralized portal as well as linked to each other. 

  • Combine the Summary Earnings Query and Detailed Earnings Query into one query, allowing the user to drill down into earnings details from the summary earnings. Example: click on one year in the Summary Earnings to view details for that year. 

  • Use the SSA User Experience Framework patterns to create a visually appealing and user-friendly design.

  • Provide contextual help at the point of need.


Conceptual Model Validation 

The UX team decided to test our idea for a “one-stop approach” with SSA technicians to validate our conceptual model before formal prototyping began. We sketched out our conceptual model on paper. Our sketches were scanned and placed into Axure to create a prototype of our paper sketches. We added simple functionality such as working buttons and links, show/hide containers that opened and closed, a few help/tool tips that opened, etc. We then tested our “paper prototype” with SSA Technicians using a prepared facilitator guide.


Paper Prototype Testing Results

The testing resulted in a high approval rating from participants. They “loved” the idea of combining the summary and detail earnings queries into one query. A few favorable outcomes and comments included:

  • They did not mind clicking a year or years in Summary earnings to drill down into Detail earnings

  • Search parameters can be changed easily

  • “There will be fewer steps.”

  • “Everything is on one screen; you don’t have to page through several different screens; I can just scroll.”

  • “I usually pull half dozen queries for a claim so being able to get to everything at once is nice.”

  • “This is awesome. Pretty much what I’ve been hoping for. It’s pretty much how I would have drawn it up if you’d ask me to do that.


Following our validation of our conceptual model, then UX team began formal design of a prototype (see Project 2)

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