Joel Elizaga

My AmeriCorps

Applying UX writing to enhance the usability of an ancient federal portal

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 users into satisfied advocates of the program.

First: What is My AmeriCorps? (My AmeriCorps) is the online nexus of the AmeriCorps operation.

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 with puzzled dread in the best of moments and frustration at worst. Here’s a quick tour:

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 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 scored a modest 30.8% usability on my UX writing scorecard:


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 <= 3 word 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 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 that can be referenced for pointers on how the agency would like to represent itself:

The voice of, in comparison to, 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 mission.

The internal voice we find in, 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 the public-facing

This dichotomy has a function: The regimented language in is 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 and importing the functional, mission-focused elements of’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:

Unified Mission

Community Corps


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 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, 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’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 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 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 is covered by this bill, and AmeriCorps issues an occasional report on their adherence to federal plain language guidelines.3

Specifically, the content of is in electronic form, is issued by a federal agency (Corporation for National and Community Service), and has writing that:

  1. is necessary for obtaining federal government benefits and services, as well as filing taxes,
  2. provides information about federal government benefits and services,
  3. explains to the public how to comply with requirements that the federal government administers or enforces,
  4. includes letters, forms, publications, notices, and instructions. 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 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,’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.


  1. Flesch, Rudolf, “How to Write Plain English,” University of Cantebury, accessed July 12, 2016.

  2. 111th U.S. Congress, Public Law 111-274, October 13, 2010.

  3. “Plain Writing,” AmeriCorps, accessed February 12, 2023.

  4. “Plain Writing Act Compliance Report,” AmeriCorps, April 8, 2012.

Headshot of Joel Elizaga.

Joel Elizaga

Joel Elizaga is a UX engineer based in the Pacific Northwest.