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PORTFOLIO: Project 2

Earnings Queries System Redesign: User Research & Concepts

Project Summary


This project was for the Social Security Administration (SSA). 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 benefits 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 that included the Product Owner, SSA Lead, 2 UX specialists, analysts, developers, testers and scrum master.

My Role


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 discovery 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. 

  • 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. They are unable to see the "full picture."

  • 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

Screenshot of earnings from the old green screen system. User painpoints included the screens were hard to read, hard on the eyes and data is hard to interpret.

Screenshot of earnings from the green screen system.

The Users


There are several positions that user Earnings Queries. We created 3 personas using data obtained from discovery interviews. For each persona we detailed their top tasks, challenges, needs, etc. For each persona, we also mapped out a user flows on how and when they use Earnings Queries. View Personas and User Flows.

For the persona Abbey (shown below): She uses earnings queries every day in her role was a Claims Specialist as she talks to customers who are filing for benefits. Her challenges include that she has to use several different systems individually, the Earnings Queries automatically sends a large earnings record to the printer instead of showing it on the screen, and the results are hard to read and understand. 

View all personas and their user flows

Earnings Queries Persona: Abbey, a Claims Specialist

Earnings Queries Persona: Abbey. She uses earning queries every day in her role as a Claims Specialist.

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)

Selected Screenshots from the Paper Prototype

Click on an image to expand the slider.

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