Case Study

Improving the Refugee Experience

USDS is a startup at the White House that pairs the country's top technology talent with the best public servants, to improve the way services are delivered to the American people. The team focused on the President’s top priorities and making the biggest impact on the greatest number of people.

This work was part of a larger effort to reach President Obama's goal to increase the annual refugee intake from 70,000 to 85,000 in 2016, with a commitment to accept 10,000 Syrians. Our team focused on understanding how technology could help the president meet this goal without adding more people or impacting the integrity of the process.

Department of Homeland Security
UX Research Lead
Key Metric
Increase the annual refugee intake from 70,000 to 85,000 in 2016
16 weeks
What you see when you arrive at the Kuala Lumpur refugee center, November 2016.


I joined USDS as a lead UX Researcher first focusing on improving refugee admissions. My first research assignment took me to SE Asia. Joining me was a cross-functional team of product managers, engineers and what we called “policy hackers,” which was in many ways the most important role on the team.

We were challenged to identify opportunities to decrease friction in the refugee experience by addressing policy, service and experiential pain points.


Often, when we interviewed people, and asked why they did a task, they would respond with, “It is a SOP,” meaning a policy defined the specifics of the task they were doing. It was a standard operating procedure.

The experience is mapped to forms and the forms are mapped to “SOPs.” 

For example, when observing the process in Bangkok, we saw two photos in each immigration packet, one glossy high resolution photo and one lower quality photo. The glossy, nicer photo is the photo that gets stapled to the front cover. It is destroyed by the staples. When asked why the lower quality photo isn't the photo stapled and destroyed, the person responded it was a SOP.

Designing Policies is Design

Introducing technology and reimagining one SOP is what improved the refugee admissions process, allowing 10,000 Syrian refugees to be processed in the timeframe President Obama set as the goal without adding more people and without decreasing the integrity of the program.

Stephanie Grosser, self-proclaimed “bureaucracy ninja,” was the policy hacker on this team that led the effort.

The current policy required a physical touchpoint, a physical stamp, as the last step in the process before someone boarded a plane. And, we learned, 57 percent of cases could not be completed during the last interview due to case details changing. For example, someone got married or someone had a baby.

If your case was not approved during the in person interview, you had to wait until the refugee core officers came back in person to your location, which meant months of delays and another long journey to where the interviews happened.

New Policy, Existing Technology

In this case it wasn’t technology that was the blocker, it was getting the bureaucratic green light to move forward with using existing technology. So, the team advocated for a digital signature or stamp to be an option in addition to the physical touchpoint.

The digital signature was implemented and the team met their goal.


Headlines from September 2015 and 2016.

In response to the growing global tension in the aftermath of the photo of a Syrian boy washing up on a Turkish beach, President Obama had increased the annual refugee intake from 70,000 to 85,000, with a commitment to accept 10,000 Syrians.

This presented an opportunity to revisit these policies and actions, to learn from past experiences, and to strive for more effective and compassionate solutions to the ongoing refugee crisis. 


It's September 2016.

My flight to Bangkok to lead this discovery effort left days after President Trump was elected.

Even though we knew the world was changing around us every minute, our team committed to this work in order that we met our goal.

In addition to requiring a physical presence to complete steps, we knew some of the pain points in the process for refugee admissions were the outcome of silos — the UN, the State Department, Department of Homeland Security, FBI and numerous contractors and NGOs were involved. 

So, this specific research, including in-depth interviews, contextual inquiry and observations was designed to better understand the way these silos worked together.

HMW better understand the refugee admissions ecosystem and each organization's decision points so that we can design a system that lessens the impact of these decision points on a refugee’s movement through the system?

First, we needed to better understand this problem space, mapping the people, organizations and technologies that made up this ecosystem. And, since I worked from home, I mapped this on my wall at home.

Before our trip, we interviewed SME's about the process to learn the history of the program. In Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, we observed the entire refugee processing activities end-to-end, from the point at which a person is first determined to be a refugee to when they board a plane to travel to the U.S. 

We also spoke with staff at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) compounds, two Resettlement Support Centers (RSCs), andInternational Organization for Migration (IOM) facilities.

The waiting room for admissions to the U.S. in the Kuala Lumpur refugee center, November 2015.

Observations during the November 2015 field research in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.


After interviews and observations, I synthesized what we learned and mapped the process. We learned: 

As the case progresses, people are passed from government organization to government organization. This introduces challenges in outward facing communication and internal communication. This pain point, among others, was highlighted. Every task or activity completed at each step was also captured.

One comment someone made stood out to me. “The interview is a slave to the process.” When I was in the field, I was able to connect the dots and understand what they meant.


  • Ineffective communication creates significant processing delays, increases intake time and results in out-of- date case information.
  • Capturing applicant information during interviews is repetitive, cumbersome and error prone.
  • Staff from every organization feels they do not have many opportunities to raise ideas for improvements or elevate frustrations.

Opportunities for the Applicant:

  • Provide a consistent seamless way to receive updates on their status.
  • Set expectations at each stage of the process through relatable video or audio feeds.

Opportunities for the Org: 

  • Decrease the number of cases that become unreachable after hours of casework is completed.
  • Remove routine paperwork from the interview process, allowing caseworkers to focus on admissibility and credibility of the case.
  • Give caseworkers the tools they need to navigate cultural and language barriers, making each touch point with the applicant more efficient. 


Opportunities were socialized and co-created in workshops I facilitated following our field research. Product managers, SMEs, designers and engineers participated and sketched starting with Crazy 8’s then moving into storyboarding. Continuing to add more form to the ideas, I crafted an insight plus concept deck delivered to senior leadership. 

Sketching / Crazy 8's

Sketching / Crazy 8's

Sketching / Crazy 8's

Scene One: Illustrating how communication feels after interviews.

Scene Two: introducing SMS updates.

Scene Three: illustrating how more frequent SMS communication would decrease drop offs during the refugee admissions process.

The Team

Laura Cochran, UX Researcher

Jason Wu, Product Manager

Nishant Shah, Product Manager

Stephanie Grosser,  Policy Hacker

Chase Kimball, Process Engineer

Deepa Kunapuli, Strategic Communications

Ben Smithgall, Software Engineer

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