Asking For Help in a Crisis: Improving the UX of The AFC Application


Creative Cloud

The AFC (formerly the Actors’ Fund of Canada) provides emergency financial assistance to entertainment industry professionals in need. For example, if a dancer breaks a leg and cannot perform, The AFC can support with costs while the person is healing. During my time at Usability Matters, I had the pleasure of working as the UX lead on a project to improve The AFC application process, along with a team including Shannah Segal and Simon Coyle. I chatted with Leah Erbe, Program Manager at The AFC, about how UX helped, and what’s changed due to the project.

The Challenges with the Existing Process

At the outset of the work, Erbe knew that there were some challenges at play. “When we started the project, we had several problems that needed solving – the main one was that we were not meeting people’s emergency financial needs fast enough. On top of that, we were not setting clear expectations with our clients in terms of what we could offer or how the application process worked. This meant that often we were not getting all of the information we needed, and I was often dealing with incomplete applications and chasing additional info.”

The AFC had been using an ever-expanding version of an application form since around 2000, and over time had become cluttered and unwieldy. A graphic designer Erbe spoke with about updating the form gave her some advice, “What you might be looking for is UX here – there’s this thing called usability which it sounds like you don’t have!” laughed Erbe.

How UX Made a Difference

From there, Erbe engaged Usability Matters to take on improving the UX of the application process. This included user and stakeholder research to understand the challenges, as well as a total overhaul of the application form. The iterative process was highly collaborative and included testing prototypes with users and The AFC staff.

Collaborative process mapping helped the team to visually understand the application process and where things were currently going awry.

Erbe shared how part of the power of design was bringing a user centered approach. “A real shift for me was realizing through the project that even though I’m naturally compassionate, there were so many things I hadn’t realized were difficult for clients. We realized that we had not thought really deeply about what the challenges for clients were.”

The UX design process also helped to tightly frame the problems with the form and the core of what the application was trying to get at. “We did a lot of work isolating what it was we were trying to ask. For example, rather than asking people to estimate what percentage of their income came from the entertainment industry, we asked them to list how much money they made in the industry and out of the industry. That had been a huge sticking point with our previous form, and the information is so much higher quality now, on average, when it comes in,” Erbe elaborated.

The updated form and application process also aligned with a major rebrand and outreach effort. The updated messaging that The AFC is for all entertainment industry professionals who need crisis help was supported by a form that clearly outlines eligibility. It also provided a digital option for completing the form via a fillable PDF, that had not been available before.

Testing prototypes of the form redesign with representative users ensured UX issues were identified early on.

One of the most powerful effects of the redesigned form was that it allowed people to tell their story. It clearly communicates why information is being requested, and it gives spaces for people to explain their situation beyond the numbers. “The redesigned form does really well at balancing the cold hard facts with enough room for people to write in how those facts affect them. Whereas before we had clients who felt really dehumanized by the form, now there are enough places for people to tell their story. We have a box right at the end that says ‘Is there anything else that you would like us to know about your situation?’ and people make great use of that box,” said Erbe.

The Results

The initial pilot of the redesigned form showed great promise, with a 21% reduction in incomplete and unclear applications. From there, the success has continued, with the overall wait time for an application decision cut nearly in half from 2014 to 2017. The AFC has also seen approximately 50% adoption of digital applications via sending the fillable PDF in an email.

The updated form includes information on eligibility, what to expect during the process, detailed checklists, and lots of room for people to tell their story.

There have also been some unexpected consequences of the work. Erbe explains “When we started with the new form the average amount requested went up by $500. The new form meant that everyone had a much better sense of the actual size of the emergency. So while the initial ask went up, we also found a reduction in repeat applications. People also have a much clearer understanding of what it is we can offer.”

The upshot of the improved UX? “The best feedback we get is that we don’t get much feedback about the form, whereas I used to get an earful about it fairly often!” Erbe said with a smile.

Thanks and Credits

  • Usability Matters Founders: Sarah English, Terry Costantino, and Shannah Segal
  • Project team: Simon Coyle, Shannah Segal, Linn Vizard
  • Leah Erbe and everyone at The AFC
  • The AFC’s clients, supporters, board members, and staff