Inspiring Line About Crop Insurance Software

Offering clarity of available benefits to Service Members integrating into civilian life

Case Study

How might we use our understanding of user journeys to create a more seamless, cohesive crop insurance experience?

The Contracting Officer for FPAC’s Crop Insurance Software Delivery (CISD) program recommended that ACE Info Solutions bring MO Studio to join their bid as an expert in bringing human-centered design to complex problems. Our work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) worked to improve the user experience of USDA’s crop insurance software—aka “Crop”. Crop is a benefit that farmers and agriculture companies use to hedge against risk associated with their business. The benefit was introduced in 1938 as a response to the Dust Bowl, supported the agricultural economy through the Great Depression, and has been an enabler of a healthy food supply for the US for nearly a century. The benefit has been slowed to modernize with modern experience and software design, and the historical / legacy IT systems integrator that supported the government delivered incremental updates via a waterfall based approach (i.e., it needs some help). Our work has been to understand the user experience and help drive the product roadmap based on pain points in the user journey. Users include downstream farmers, as well as many stakeholder groups impacted by the benefit (e.g., federal employees / program office managers in Washington DC, front line federal employees across the country, insurance agents across the country, etc.).

To successfully modernize and streamline the experience interacting with RMA’s crop insurance software, we began our process by conducting research and gathering insight and uncovering opportunities to transform the experience. Informed by qualitative insight and quantitative data, our team identified moments that matter in the user journey that would guide the product roadmap and focus development efforts. Historically, maintaining Crop has been a development-led approach and organization culture that does not understand nor emphasize experience design (or model the USDS Playbook). We proactively sought engagement with and buy-in from our partners and stakeholders regarding the mindset and utilization of HCD in this effort, as our approach constituted significant change. Additionally, the nuanced language used to describe different users of the benefit (e.g., customers/agents, beneficiary/producers, etc.) uncovered the opportunity to introduce modern software development techniques (e.g., journey based approach to modernization, personas, etc.) created value across a large team and will continue to drive alignment into the future.

By utilizing existing services available throughout modernization, current work incorporate and/or build off services known to already be used or desired by users, or provide insight as to what additional gaps need to be addressed. Before designing immediate solutions, our HCD team noticed a lack of understanding across the entire program team, and took the initiative to create an ecosystem map of all the applications within the RMA software, building off the existing crop insurance cycle, and piecing together what our team learned and uncovered during the transition period. In addition to identifying redundancies and outdated information, this effort enabled us, in partnership with our client, to think critically about how the future state is envisioned and evolve it into service design artifacts to drive further alignment and understanding of root causes and drivers of pain points in the customer experience. As a small research and design team bolted onto a large system integration team, we were changing culture within USDA and our partners at the same time. We also conducted foundational design research with producers (e.g., farmers, ranchers, etc.), who are an indirect user of crop insurance software. Our small team has conducted and synthesized primary / user research, uncovered insights, and reshaped the product roadmap and backlog by partnering with solution architects, scrum masters, and other cross-collaborative team members.

  • HCD: Early in the program, we identified that it was unclear what the user experience is for employees, AIPs or producers, what measurements are in place, and where we might begin or align HCD efforts (user, cycle, pain points, enhancement, etc). 
  • PI Planning & Change Requests: There’s a lot of tension around the process for product planning. It’s currently done through change requests which are submitted by USDA POs and, for the most part, automatically approved by the time they get to the Change Advisory Board. There are multiple POs for each Product Lane and typically one gets priority say. This is a process that ACE wants to change with PI Planning. There seems to be a missing component of user feedback or data in the prioritization which is an area HCD can add value.
  • Onboarding & Access: The government onboarding process is time consuming and has a long duration (>2 months), delaying access to systems and software. What the steps are or who to contact to keep the application moving are not well-documented. Separately, program onboarding is not yet streamlined and there is a steep learning curve for people new to crop insurance. We created an RMA Crop Insurance Informational Guide to share with new employees and worked with Roger (Ace Deputy Program Manager) to get it incorporated into the onboarding process so that we could test and improve it. We took note of general lessons learned about onboarding as a Prime.
  • Advocating for HCD
    • It’s hard to know what the existing HCD goals are for the software and if it’s meeting them: We have uncovered very limited existing UX research and data. Qualitative research with users will help identify their needs, satisfaction with current tools, and how they are using them (compared to what they were designed for). App usage data, which has not been available to us yet, would also help with understanding actual usage. Building in this combination of qualitative and quantitative research will help determine key performance indicators and measurements to drive decision making.
  • Legacy system architecture and software dev management
    • Agile being introduced – quarterly planning postponed multiple times because of tension between an agile way of working and the need to plan / delegate decision making
    • Prioritization for modernization placed on technology being sunsetted which drove a need to keep the system working over designing a sustainable and human centered solution (which likely would be faster / more efficient, but an unfamiliar approach)
  • Research
    • Ecosystem / landscape analysis – customers, users, contractors, FPAC & RMA relationship
    • User research helped fill in our understanding of AIPs, agents, producers, and internal users’ crop insurance-related jobs. We planned to start research with AIPs, the direct user of RMA software, but were prohibited from speaking with them at that time. We turned our focus to producers, who we understand are not the main user of RMA software, but as the end user of the product, they offered a valuable perspective on what is most important in the overall insurance cycle. We conducted qualitative interviews with a small number of producers. This initial research uncovered insights related to four key themes (innovation friction, knowledge gap, producer-agent relationship, and usage of tools) which led to opportunity areas for crop insurance software. We planned to further explore these findings with targeted research and, along with research with AIPs and internal users, help create a better user experience as we architect software solutions.

We delved into understanding the software, users, and stakeholders. We learned that there is a proliferation of applications and processes to support the complex crop insurance cycle and that few people understand the full picture of the user experience, technology, and backstage processes. Our results and outcomes included:

  • Co-created 1 Ecosystem Map with notations of respective Product Owners, key technologies, and identified opportunities for HCD and system architecture. 
  • Created a research plan, discussion guide, activities, and debrief template for user research. 
  • Conducted a UI/UX review of Account Maintenance Deferral Management (an Accounting page) to help make the experience for internal and external users as easy, productive, and delightful as possible. 
  • Developed an RMA Crop Insurance Informational Guide for new employees with background context and helpful links, and committed to iterating the guide as necessary to maximize effectiveness.