I write this article to tell people to reject the preconceived notion that technology is the answer to everything. Technology can make life easier, yes,
but the end goal of everything isn't always a web app, an online portal or a digital kiosk. Technology should be seen as a channel, a medium used to serve your consumers and deliver the information they desire, not as the holistic solution to every problem you come across.
I worked as a UX researcher with two other principal UX researchers, a data analyst and graphic designer for [undisclosed project] in which we were looking at the farm loan application process. The users included farm loan officers (FLOs) and producers (farmers). The goal was to identify roadblocks, inhibitors, pain points and moments of delight in the application process and leverage this information to make the complete process of applying for a loan a smooth and hassle-free experience for both the FLOs and producers.
Design projects can be process or system-based depending on the user/business goals. This project was different than most others, because the focus here was on the process, not the system. The end goal would be a list of recommendations to the stakeholders that would include changes in: workflow management, the process structure, current systems or introduction of new ones and changes in policy. The impact we would have as designers to shape the whole experience was large, which made this project challenging, intriguing and of course, rewarding.
Josh (Principal UX Researcher) and I interviewed 5 stakeholders and 3 FLOs to better understand the application process. We started with a generic set of questions about the steps, paperwork, loan programs, timelines and tools used to process them. Every new discovery was added as a question for the next interview to confirm our finding. This knowledge was then translated into a visual representation of the process aka journey map.
We conducted a discovery workshop with major stakeholders to share and confirm our findings from the interviews. We found that the every service center (place where FLOs work and help producers apply for loans) is different in terms of the type of loans processed, type of producers in the area, crop diversity and service center (SC) density. These variables dictate:
The findings from this workshop set the stage for our field visits and helped in:
The field visits were critical to helping us understand the motivation behind applying for a farm loan, understanding the pain points and points of delight of the process, the work dynamics in the service centers,
the drivers for preferring / not preferring to use technology, understanding the existing software used to service applications and how the quality of service varied based
on the variables mentioned under .
The structure for the field visits was as follows:
Day 1: Introduce ourselves to SC staff, contextual inquiry and interviews with staff
Day 2: Meet producers, interviews and card sorting activities
Day 3: Team retrospective with SC staff to understand what went well, what didn't and what could be improved
A synthesis workshop was held to present and validate the findings from the discovery workshop and field visits. Unlike the discovery workshop, where we handed out featherweight personas and journey maps and asked stakeholders to fill in the details, in this workshop we shared the high fidelity documentation with insights from our previous discoveries. This workshop was focused on advocating the importance and impact of our findings and figuring out the necessary measures needed to make the farm loan application a smooth and efficient process.
This was the most consistent and prominent theme that came up after interviewing the producers.
The producers enjoyed the cordial interactions with the FLOs, for which they were even ready to invest time to personally stop by the SCs and meet the FLOs.
In most cases, they would the FLO-in charge of their application to ask for help with the application. But in very few cases did it happen that they filled/submitted something online.
Producers said they didn't wholly trust technology. And they would instead prefer their questions being answered by a human than a machine. Also, due to limited network connectivity, they couldn't always access information online.We saw a similar pattern for the FLOs as well, many of who had been or were producers themselves and could relate to the concerns of the applicants - also producers. We heard that the producers like to approach the FLOs as they can get additional help related to their farm operations in addition to help on farms loans.
Good quote (FLOs): "If their(producer) loan is approved, I want to be the first person to give them the good news. If it's rejected, I'd want to sit them down, tell them why and give them options to get it reviewed. An automated electronic response would only add fuel to the fire and compel them to appeal the decision in court."
We visited 5 service centers and in all of them, saw that the relationships between the FLOs were strong allowing them to operate as one cohesive unit, sharing workload and distributing backlog if any, to help things move faster. We heard this isn't the case at other SCs and that some SCs are more siloed than others making them slower in processing applications and requiring the producers to jump more hoops than required. It is important to note, however, that we didn't come across any such SC and if at all this problem exists, it might introduce a slight bias in our findings.
The systems the FLOs used to process applications are disconnected. Every system serves a certain stage in the farm loan application process (FLAP). Also, these systems are not intuitive enough to "talk" to other systems which increases the burden on the FLOs. Each application has to be filled separately in different systems. If these systems could communicate with other systems, information could be dispersed across all systems, forms could be pre-populated with data and all paperwork could be saved in an e-repository reducing the workload. We also heard the need of a holistically integrated system that served all stages - awareness, application, processing and maintenance of the FLAP.
Another big pain point that impedes the workflow and dwindles the efficiency of many FLOs is the amount of paperwork involved. Although there are e-systems that capture information, everything does need to be regenerated on paper - That's policy. Over time, as the loan matures, the paperwork piles up. Every loan application is a big folder with a stack of > 50 forms. We also saw that the forms aren't consolidated and in many cases, require repetitive information. This not only makes managing the applications more cumbersome, but also adds a moment of frustration for the producers as they have to fill repetitive information.
Compliance policies for the application process are communicated to the FLOs through 'handbooks'. Every loan program has a different handbook. Changes in policies lead to modifications in the handbook. And in case of most loan programs, these handbooks are not updated as soon as the policies change. FLOs are informed much later by word of mouth, emails about the changes. This leads to them reaching out to producers to convey the changes or request of additional paperwork after all paperwork has been submitted, adding unnecessary delays to the process.
The performance of SCs directly relies on the background and how experienced the FLOs are in processing loans. More experienced FLOs positively impact the experience and are pivotal in helping producers smoothly transition through different stages of the process, something new, less experienced and temporary FLOs are rarely able to do. Also, delicate tasks like handling difficult conversations of loan rejection, delinquency and liquidation are better handled by more experienced FLOs.
While there is good farm loan programs outreach material available, most producers hear about the loans through word of mouth.
Brochures with information on loan programs are available at service centers,
but producers must know of these centers in the first place to learn more about the loans.
Information is available online, but most producers do not use computers or smartphones.
Each case is different, and due to the different variables involved in the process, there is no way to pre-approve an applicant for a loan. The only way is to have a face-to-face conversation with the loan officer.