“Every Day is Important in the Life of a Strawberry: Finding the Users in Government Policy”: Sheri Bernard Trivedi with U.S. Digital Service (Video + Transcript)

April 29, 2019

Documentation is just a mirror held up to a product. If you think of government services as some of the most crucial products we encounter at the United States Digital Service, then user-centered documentation becomes all the more interesting. In this talk, Sheri Bernard Trivedi tells a story about writing docs for farmers, one of her favorite projects in her career thus far. She is an Instructional Content Strategist at the United States Digital Service (or USDS for short).


Sheri Bernard Trivedi / Instructional Content Strategist / United States Digital Service
Gretchen DeKnikker / COO / Girl Geek X

Transcript from Elevate 2019 conference:

Gretchen DeKnikker: All right everybody, welcome back. Sheri, it looks like you’re muted, if you want to just get the audio going.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: Hi there.

Gretchen DeKnikker: So yes, the videos are being recorded. Go ahead and tweet and share with the hashtag GGX Elevate. Please submit your questions during the session in the little Q&A button down below if you hover at the bottom of your window. We’ll have more socks to give away in a little bit.

Gretchen DeKnikker: So I’m going to put a warning label on the next session and it’s going to be that, right now, you think you would never want to work for the government. And in 20 minutes, you’re totally going to change your mind because every time–we had Julie Meloni last year, from USDS speak, and this year we have Sheri Trivedi. And every time I hear them speak, I start rethinking, “Do I want to go do this?” So Sheri’s going to share part of her job. And by the way, they’re hiring, lots of companies are hiring, go to girlgeek.io/opportunities and check those out. Sheri is the Content Strategist for USDS and is trying to bring user centric design principles into the government. And today she’s going to talk to us about an incredibly interesting application of that. And so without further ado, Sheri, please.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: All right, let me share my slides here. Okay, all right, hi everybody. Thanks for joining me here today on the internet. I’m Sheri Bernard Trivedi and I’m a Content Strategist in the design community of practice at the U.S. Digital Service in Washington, D.C. At the U.S. Digital Service [inaudible 00:02:22] service for one to four years. We work to find ways to help our government partners deliver value to the people they serve using technology and user centered design. It’s incredibly important and fulfilling work and I’m going to pitch you more on why you should think about packing up your entire life and moving to Washington D.C. to do it, just like I did, in a bit.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: So before I was at USDS, I focused the 13 years of my post-college career on instructional content, mostly technical writing and UX writing at GitHub, Salesforce and AutoDesk, the makers of AutoCad. If you’ve even read the AutoCad user guide and thought, “Wow, I have such a clear understanding of parametric constraints and dynamic blocks and model space now,” then you have 2009 Sheri to thank. Ever since I was quite young, I was interested in government and how it works. I’m amazed and humbled every day that I’ve been able to take my experience helping people to understand how to use well-known Silicon Valley products and bring it to government work.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: If you’ve ever filled out a government form or tried to learn more about a government program from their website, then you know there’s often a lot of room for improvement. At USDS we work to create momentum and bring those improvements, no matter how small. We stress user-centered accessible design in all aspects of our work. And I’ve been thrilled to use so much user validation in all of my projects here. The thing about documentation is that it holds a mirror up to your product. You can’t get mad at the docs when they’re complex, you need to revisit what you built.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: So today I’m going to tell you a story about the latter part of last year when I swooped in at the end of thing and held up a giant mirror to the H-2A Visa Program. At the end of 2017, the Department of Agriculture asked USDS to help them improve the H-2A Visa process for farmers. At USDS, before we start working on a project at an agency, we start with what we call a discovery sprint. A discovery sprint is a two week period where a small team made up of product managers, engineers, designers, strategy experts, and sometimes a lawyer, goes out and researches the shit out of a problem at the request of an agency.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: The sprint teams talk to as many agency executives, stakeholders, and users as they can in that two week period. Then they write a report about what they saw. At USDS, one of our values is, go where the work is. So often the sprint team will travel to the middle of a field in North Carolina or to a VA hospital in West Virginia if that’s where the users are. Every project USDS has delivered started with a discovery sprint.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: So what USDA wanted us to do was to learn how they could decrease the burden on farmers who are trying to hire temporary agricultural workers under the H-2A migrant farmworker visa. The farmers themselves apply for the H-2A visas, then they find workers once the visas are approved. This is an important program for agricultural workers because it’s safer for them when they’re documented. When workers aren’t documented, they’re much more easily exploited. There are also a ton of regulations for farmers about providing workers with quality housing, meals, training, and tools at no cost to the worker.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: So the process for applying for H-2A visas has been around for many years and, as you can imagine, it’s been added over time and rarely simplified. First, farmers apply with their state workforce agency to get approval that the housing they’re providing meets the state standards. Then they apply with the Department of Labor to recruit domestic workers who get preference before foreign workers. Spoiler alert, there are very few domestic workers who want to do this farm work, it is really, really hard.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: Then farmers apply with the Department of Homeland Security to actually get the H-2A visas. And finally, the workers themselves apply with the State Department to get the visas the farmer was granted by DHS. The farmer needs to guide the workers through every part of this, from the time the worker is hired to the moment they arrive at the farm in the U.S., so farmers really need to understand what’s going on. But understanding the entire process is really onerous for farmers because it’s never been written down from beginning to end.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: For example, the Department of Labor has an overly comprehensive guide for the farmer describing how to apply. This is just a process flow from that guide, not the entire guide itself. And at the end of the guide, it says, “Congratulations, you’re done with our part of the process.” Each agency has a form that the farmer has to fill out. Of course, forms are the lingua franca of government. The first two forms, the ETA-790 and ETA-9142A, come from the Department of Labor. The third, the I-129, is 36 pages long, it’s the form all non-immigrant workers complete when they apply for a visa no matter what type of visa it is. And I bet a lot of you have filled it out yourselves. I know I helped my husband fill this out. There’s a lot of duplicate information across these three forms.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: Originally, the USDS team proposed that we create what we call the Superform that the farmer would complete online. The Superform would shuttle out the resulting information to the Department of Labor and DHS. I was going to design the Superform along with Kasia Chimielinski, an incredibly talented product manager at USDS who I spent of bunch of time researching the process with and … Sorry, I’ve lost my screen here. Okay, so we spent a month researching each field between the forms and designing a new one that used plain language and the U.S. Web design standards.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: After a few weeks of this research, Julie Meloni, who was just mentioned, the former Director of Product at USDS, invited us to a meeting at the Department of Labor with the person who leads the team of H-2A adjudicators there. I was really excited about this because I had a lot of questions about the intent behind some of the fields and also why they had two forms in the first place. So this was going to be a great research opportunity.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: I showed up and I opened my laptop to start taking notes and I began listening to a presentation about the new form the Department of Labor had created on their own, joining the two forms they were responsible for into one. I stopped taking notes. In the month between when USDS made their recommendations and when we’d started building the Superform, the Department of Labor had gone and done a fair amount of the work themselves. This probably sounds frustrating to you, but to me it was really beautiful to watch. At USDS we want to enable agencies to do good tech work themselves. We’d helped the Department of Labor to understand their users and work to make things better for them.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: The other agency hadn’t quite gotten there yet, though, and the Secretary of Agriculture really wanted to be able to point at a concrete way to help farmers. This is where my story really began. We told the secretary we’d build an educational tool for the existing farmers.gov website that asks a small set of questions about the farmer and the type of work they needed done. Then the tool would output a customized checklist, “checklist,” explaining how to hire foreign workers. I say checklist in air quotes because, my god, the sheer number of steps these farmers have to go through to legally hire foreign workers, the process spans 75 days. There was no single place where the entire process was written down from beginning to end across all agencies because each agency only described how to do their piece.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: I spent all day, every day, researching every last piece of information about the H-2A visa process. This slide actually shows a part of the mind map, it’s not the entire mind map that I used to organize the information and sources and it’s zoomed out to 5%, that’s actually writing in there. I read pages and pages of statutes and regulations spanning decades.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: One of the things the Department of Labor adjudicates is whether the work the farmer is seeking workers for hot falls under the regulations for temporary agricultural work. And the only place you can find that information is in Title 26 of the U.S. Code Subtitle C, Chapter 21, Chapter C, Section 3121. It’s one of the most unfriendly lists of requirements you’ve ever seen. And outside of the code, there are special rules for certain activities like itinerant animal shearing that the Department of Labor maintains on their own. This is a lot for a farmer in California just trying to get some help in harvesting their strawberries in the summer.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: The rules and procedures are so much for farmers that often they’ll hire someone to handle some or all of the process for them on their behalf. Whether it’s just someone who manages the filing ,or a farm labor contractor who handles paperwork, recruitment, transportation, and housing for the workers. Farm labor contractors aren’t doing any better at this than farmers would, though, and often they do worse. Last year, 70% of the Department of Labor’s notices of deficiency for incomplete applications came from farm labor contractors.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: Describing the process in plain language from beginning to end completely, we hoped we would not only help farmers to get workers on their own, but that maybe, if the agency saw this mirror of their own process, they would work to find ways to make it easier. In December, I delivered a mock up and first draft of content to the contractors who maintain the farmers.gov website. They immediately shifted gears and developed a high [inaudible 00:12:27] with nine farmers. This was actually something that the contractor had been wanting to do for a while. They had been wanting to do user testing, and they hadn’t been able to do it until we recommended it, so that was a big win. After they completed testing and incorporated feedback and recovered from the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, the team is ready to make the tool public on farmers.gov soon, not quite yet.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: So the H-2A educational tool isn’t the only thing I’ve been able to work on at USDS since I joined last June. I’ve shaped developer documentation for an open source react library used to develop government forms, called the U.S. Forms System. I’ve helped design a tool I can’t talk about at the Department of Defense at the Pentagon. And right now, I’m helping to develop a pilot to change the way the Federal Government hires for the competitive service at the Office of Personnel Management. My colleagues at USDS work with Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Defense. And we find new projects in other agencies all the time, even as we speak.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: There are a lot of stories to be told about helping the American people. You will never find a larger, more diverse user base. Last week we released an update to our website, usds.gov. At usds.gov, you can find information about the types of roles we hire for, including front end engineers, back end engineers, site reliability engineers, security specialists, product managers from all industries, interaction designers, service designers, user researchers, content strategists like me, and everything in between. You can also learn about some of our past projects and how we think about our work. And maybe while you’re there, you can click that apply now button up in the top right and join us. Thank you.

Gretchen DeKnikker: All right, thank you so much, Sheri. So if we decide to do this, do we have to move to Washington, D.C.?

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: Yes, we would prefer that you move to Washington, D.C. There are a few exceptions, but it’s not as hard as it seems to pack up your entire life, put half your things in storage, and, for example, drive your red Mini Cooper across the northern United States to show up in Washington, D.C. [crosstalk 00:14:57].

Gretchen DeKnikker: Did you get a new wardrobe?

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: No, not really. We like to keep it pretty casual around here. And actually, being able to stick out around the White House campus and all the government buildings around it, kind of helps. It throws people off a little bit and to listen to us a little bit more. We come as we are.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Right, like coats and winter clothes, though, right?

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: Yes, for sure.

Gretchen DeKnikker: And then, but then it is just for a certain period of time, right?

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: Yes, it’s generally for, like I said, one to four years. Generally the contracts are two to four years, it depends on what’s negotiated, but, yeah.

Gretchen DeKnikker: All right, well I am already excited again. I’m sure that there … Thank goodness your website got out last week because I’m sure there’s tons of hits going to it right now.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: I hope so.

Gretchen DeKnikker: All right, thank you so much for joining us today Sheri.

Sheri Bernard Trivedi: Thank you.

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