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How user research helped create unemployment assistance tools

Illustration of a person sitting at a desk on a video call with a UX researcher, who thanks her for her feedback.

In 2020, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, people across the United States were losing their jobs or experiencing job insecurity. Over the course of the year, one in four people in the U.S. would apply for unemployment. People were looking for information on government assistance — in fact, searches for “unemployment benefits” increased by more than 5,000% in 2020.

While the pandemic caused a spike, people have long been searching for this kind of information. Back in 2019, a team at Google wanted to look into helping people navigate government services online. The team, led by User Experience Research (UXR) Manager John Webb, started looking into how Google could help. Initially, John explains, the team was seeking users’ input to build a Search feature that would explain civic services and government quickly and easily. “Obviously, things became more complex — and urgent — very quickly,” he says.

Sydney Hessel is also one of the leads on the project. She’s been a UX researcher for more than five years. As a result of COVID-19, she saw close friends lose their jobs suddenly. She knew how important this research could be. “We approached our work with empathy,” she says, “so we could deeply understand people’s experiences and how we could support them in the products we design.” The Google Experience Research Program recently relaunched its site, so more people can sign up to participate in future research like this to inform all kinds of products.

Being proactive and doing interviews in person before COVID became more serious is what allowed us to jump into building the product so quickly. It helped us create a more empathetic tool. John Webb
Google UXR Manager

As 2019 became 2020, the User Research team began recruiting study participants from a diverse group of people from different backgrounds and industries who’d been laid off, furloughed or had their shifts cut during COVID’s early days. Then, they used Google Meet for in-depth, one-on-one interviews. “We asked about their job situation, what they saw as their next steps to make ends meet and how Search could be designed to better support them,” Sydney says. Everyone from product managers to engineers joined the sessions.

“Our team also conducted both in-person and remote studies with more than 100 people,” John says. “Before COVID-19, we had teams in many different places, working to understand what people in these places needed.” On-the-ground research was cut short and interviewing moved to Google Meet, which John says went pretty smoothly. Being able to continue interviews via video calls was essential, and meant that people could offer insight about employment conditions as they developed. Plus, the early, in-person research had its benefits, too. “Being proactive and doing interviews in person before COVID became more serious is what allowed us to jump into building the product so quickly,” John explains. “It helped us create a more empathetic tool — we were more aware of cultural nuances, and how people in different countries with different government benefits would need different kinds of help.”

Information about unemployment benefits eligibility and other government services can be hard to understand, making it difficult to navigate the process and make informed decisions. “We actually found that a lot of the people we talked to didn’t even know there were benefits they qualified for,” John says. So UXR took what they learned back to product teams at Google — which soon led to the launch of new, dedicated information panels in Search for Unemployment and other benefits. These information panels include robust local information about eligibility, as well as direct links and information about how to apply in each state.

An image of a mobile phone showing unemployment benefit information

Sydney says seeing the team’s research inform the design of the product — and such an important one — was incredibly encouraging. “It was a really moving and motivating experience for the whole team,” she says. “These interviews fired us up to build quickly and intentionally for the many people facing economic hardship during this time.”

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