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How Michigan used “human-centric” design to make its public benefits process more user-friendly

An image of the former MDHHS public assistance application beside the new, shorter version.
Michael Brennan
Michigan's application form for public benefits used to be 42 pages long. Civilla's redesign is 80% shorter in words and 60% shorter in page length, says CEO Michael Brennan.

Filling out applications for government assistance programs, like Medicaid or food stamps, can be a lengthy and confusing process. 

In Michigan, it used to involve filling out a 42-page form that, among other highly-specific questions, asked applicants to give the exact dates their children were conceived.

But thanks to the work of Michael Brennan and his team at the Detroit design firm Civilla, the application has gotten a user-friendly overhaul.

Brennan, who is Civilla’s CEO, says that his firm focuses on “human-centric design." That's the idea that in order to understand a problem, you have to actually spend time with the people you’re trying to help.

When the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) tapped Civilla to redesign their public benefits application form, Brennan says his team started by speaking with individuals who were actually navigating that system. Those conversations helped them identify major flaws and shortcomings in the process.

Brennan’s team later met with “state leaders, legislators, [and] members of the non-profit community” to illustrate what applicants experience, in part by having them fill out the lengthy application themselves.

“We literally would have people who had a Ph.D. and say, ‘I can read this, but I actually don’t understand this,’” Brennan said.

So what does the redesigned form look like now?

“Today, we have an application that is 80% shorter in words and questions, 60% shorter in the number of pages. It goes through the state process in about half the time,” Brennan said.

Brennan says that the state has also asked Civilla to help make the process of renewing aid more straightforward. He hopes that this work will inspire other public institutions in Michigan to use human-centered design to improve the experiences of the people they serve.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas. 

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