AmeriCorps is the largest grant-maker in the United States: It’s an independent agency of the U.S. government with the stated purpose of improving lives, strengthening communities, and fostering civic engagement through service and volunteering. The organization’s projects range from disaster response to matters of economic opportunity, environmental stewardship, and education.
This awesome mission of AmeriCorps would be better
served with an updated web portal made usable through accessible, clear, concise,
conventional, and purposeful UX content that advances the AmeriCorps
voice and turns ladened
into satisfied advocates of the program.
First: What is My AmeriCorps?
My.AmeriCorps.gov (My AmeriCorps) is the online nexus of the AmeriCorps
Corps members, prospective corps members, team & unit leaders, staff, alumni, and non-profit sponsors all cross paths with the portal.
As an AmeriCorps alum I can attest that my unit regarded
puzzled dread in the best of moments and frustration at worst. Here’s a quick
Defining the user journey: Alum Alan
Alum Alan is an AmeriCorps alum who wants to access the Segal Education Award granted upon completion of his service to pay for some of his college tuition.
In user story terms:
As an… AmeriCorps alum
I want to… disburse my Segal education award
So I can… pay for educational expenses at a qualified institution.
I examined the
My.AmeriCorps.gov experience from the eyes of Alum Alan on his
journey to education award disbursal.
Evaluating & improving content usability
1. Heuristic evaluation
First I assessed the portal’s UX content usability by performing a heuristic evaluation on each page accessed along Alum Alan’s journey.
I dropped a flag and left a note for every string with an opportunity to improve on my usability heuristics (accessible, clear, concise, conventional, purposeful):
Alan’s journey on
MyAmeriCorps.gov scored a modest 30.8% usability on my UX
Awesome! Now we’ve identified precise points of usability issues and have a taxonomy for how, exactly, each point needs improvement.
As a proof-of-concept, I drafted an improved log in page with writing that fulfills the usability criteria and resolves the issues I documented:
I made my edits with minimal changes to the existing UI and UX design, this being a UX writing case study.
My UX content revisions to the log in page have these key enhancements:
- A sectioned & labeled ‘Apply to Serve’ block to stimulate AmeriCorps applications,
- Legalese in the form of optionally clickable tooltips rather than a heavy chunk of text anchoring the page and acting as a focal point,
- Greater readability with a 10th grade English maximum as rated by the Flesch-Kincaid scale,1
- Verb-first buttons,
- Buttons with a
<= 3word maximum to reduce cognitive load,
- Concision: Irrelevant and redundant strings removed—again, to reduce cognitive load.
2. Narrative arc
Next I mapped the narrative arc of Alan’s experience in order to analyze the user journey with greater granularity. This technique of ‘narrative arc’ is similar to the diagrammatic journey mapping found in UX design, but it’s more fitted to evaluating UX content:
Through this practice of mapping I discovered more pain-points across the alum’s journey, inspiring these improvements to the ‘Request Education Award Payment’ screen:
Evaluating & improving content voice
The existing voice of
My.AmeriCorps.gov may be perceived as formidably
bureaucratic. Users may find it inaccessible and overwhelming:
On each page along the left side is a set of links leading to different parts of My AmeriCorps. By clicking on these links, you can navigate through the system and view the various benefits of the system. From My AmeriCorps, you can do things such as update your contact information, print out tax information and have access to AmeriCorps benefits. These links will vary depending on the type of AmeriCorps program you are serving and whether or not you are currently serving or have completed your term of service.
To complete your Education Award payment request, please verify that your personal information is correct, enter in the amount of money you are authorizing, choose a payment type, and select your Institution. Upon completing the form, click the “submit” button to forward your request.
Please click submit button ONCE. Do not click back button or refresh your browser.
Luckily, AmeriCorps has a well-crafted and recognizable brand voice on AmeriCorps.gov that can be referenced for pointers on how the agency would like to represent itself:
The voice of
AmeriCorps.gov, in comparison to
MyAmeriCorps.gov, has a quality of
actionable, mission-oriented neighborliness to it. It’s designed to consistently
showcase the organization’s services and values throughout the experience. This
deliberate consistency aids in creating a memorable impression of the brand, so
audiences associate the AmeriCorps imagery with a particular voice and a certain
The internal voice we find in
My.AmeriCorps.gov, on the other hand, is more precise, orderly, and
professional. It contains a lexicon of acronyms, jargon, and ideas that structures
the program itself, and approachability isn’t as much of a priority as it is for
This dichotomy has a function: The regimented language in
intended to dispell ambiguity and nurtures accountability within AmeriCorps.
This is to maintain internal order and minimize risk to the organization’s
funding whenever the matter comes up in Congress.
Designing a voice chart
With respect to keeping this dichotomy, while reducing the verbosity of
bureaucratic language in
MyAmeriCorps.gov and importing the functional,
mission-focused elements of
AmeriCorps.gov’s voice, I identified two voices for
the portal: the Unified Mission and Community Corps voices.
I drafted a voice chart to codify these voices to make their comprehension and implementation easy for content writers:
AmeriCorps celebrates and welcomes serving our country’s diverse communities and needs.
AmeriCorps carries the U.S. government’s brand of professional respect, efficacy, precision, orderliness, and cooperation.
Service, communities, opportunities, impact, families, benefits, education, support, provide, assist.
Mitigation, response, recovery, stewardship, leadership, training, spike, capacity, + internally-exclusive jargon and acronyms.
Concise & approachable: Optimistic.
Precise & professional: Resilient.
Directive. Passive, as if from third-person outside assessment, when describing AmeriCorps and the activities of AmeriCorps.
Ends sentences & phrases with periods.
Ends sentences & phrases with periods.
Sentence case. Title case buttons & titles.
Sentence case. Title case buttons & titles.
These two voices are designed to make writing a stylistically consistent,
functionally branded experience possible across a team of content writers.
Following these guidelines would create a coherent and recognizable ‘voice’ for
My.AmeriCorps.gov. Each of the two voices has a purpose:
Community Corps - The internal voice of order
The more interally-focused Community Corps voice values precision and professionalism. It exists to project order, respect, and efficacy amongst those already working within AmeriCorps.
The current content of MyAmeriCorps.gov, while self-serious, currently lacks concision, and this lack of concision inadvertently communicates a lack of order and efficacy. The dense legal text and sometimes verbose strings risk confusion and speaks to users as a lawyer might.
By imprementing the Community Corps voice and conciously adhering to its focus on precision, writers can create concise and relevant portal content that doesn’t exclude users with advanced vocabulary, content irrelevant to tasks being performed, or demand unnecessary focus to understand.
Unified Mission - United in mission
The Unified Mission voice takes cues from
AmeriCorps.gov’s content and
AmeriCorps PR material; it can be used on the portal to drive engagement and the
conversion of non-profit sponsors and potential corps members.
The current voice of
My.AmeriCorps.gov is distinct from that of
this lack of cohesion may be jarring for users. There’s a great opportunity to
advance brand consistency and leverage the approachability, mission focused, and
values-oriented qualities of the rest of the AmeriCorps image on
My.AmeriCorps.gov by blending in the Unified Mission voice when appropriate.
Specifically, when users first register accounts and are exploring the
possibility of joining the program or applying for grants for their non-profits.
The Plain Writing Act of 20102 mandates that US government documents issued to
the public be written in clear and accessible language—plain writing. I suspect
that the content of
My.AmeriCorps.gov is covered by this bill, and AmeriCorps
issues an occasional report on their adherence to federal plain language
Specifically, the content of
My.AmeriCorps.gov is in electronic form, is issued by
a federal agency (Corporation for National and Community Service), and has
- is necessary for obtaining federal government benefits and services, as well as filing taxes,
- provides information about federal government benefits and services,
- explains to the public how to comply with requirements that the federal government administers or enforces,
- includes letters, forms, publications, notices, and instructions.
My.AmeriCorps.gov isn’t included in AmeriCorps’ April 2012 compliance report,4
but other CNCS sites with up to 54,000 users are. I could be wrong: Maybe
My.AmeriCorps.gov isn’t considered publicly accessible because it requires
users to register an account.
In the spirit of the Plain Writing Act, though, the content of
could be realigned to match the accessibility and voice of the rest of the agency’s
publications and web presence. Rustic UI of the experience aside,
My.AmeriCorps.gov’s content may be opaque enough to be deterring enlistment.
There’s a good amount of federal and state institutions that could use a UX content touch-up. In my Foundations of UX Writing certificate class we used Indiana’s BMV as a case-study:
We interact with these organizations on a semi-regular basis to access the sort of basic services governments are formed to provide, and the UX of social media, streaming, shopping, and video games in the private sector is comparatively sharp. They’re no profit-drivers, but if we took care to make these institutional experiences nearly as accessible and intuitive it could drive greater civic engagement, strengthen the missions of programs and departments like AmeriCorps, facilitate efficient governance, and improve lives.
Joel Elizaga is a UX engineer based in the Pacific Northwest.