November 21, 2023

Informing the Future: Government Forms of Today and Tomorrow

How the 2023 FormFest event inspired us to build better government, one form at a time.

Earlier this month, members of our Exygy team gathered at the inaugural FormFest, a virtual conference organized by Code for America and the Digital Service Network at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation. Over 2,000 people attended the event, spreading out amongst 40+ speakers from 20+ organizations centered around a common goal: building better government, one form at a time. 

Only 2% of federal forms are digitized according to the White House — a difficult fact illustrated by its implications: legacy forms, poorly designed forms, and paper-only applications make it more difficult for Americans to access crucial services such as healthcare, unemployment insurance, food assistance, and housing. In most cases, these services are public benefits, which means access to them is necessary in order to live a healthy life. Historically, government forms have failed to provide that, and thus, failed to earn residents’ trust. It isn’t hard for me to think of an example of a time when a government form has driven me to desperation, consuming countless hours of my time and often leading me in circles, only to leave me empty-handed and at a dead-end. 

A screenshot of the Exygy team debriefing our learnings after FormFest!

Fortunately, Exygy is one of many organizations focused on improving this experience.  Within the product CiviForm, city staff can build forms for public benefits quickly and easily thanks to this open-source form builder; through Bloom Housing, home-seekers can find and apply for affordable housing with our digital common application. And we are in good company: services like ClearMyRecord from Code for America make it possible for people with criminal records to (now automatically!) clear their record leading to increased job opportunities. The redesign of the public benefits application in Michigan by Detroit organization Civilla allows people to apply for food assistance, healthcare, and childcare assistance all in one simple form. Talks at this year’s FormFest by GOV.UK, Canadian Digital Services, the City of Boston, Code for America, and many others facilitated deeply motivating spaces for people and teams working toward this common goal to share ideas, share pains and successes, and inspire one another. 

Below are three themes that our interdisciplinary team of engineers, designers, and product strategists found especially inspirational and applicable to our every-day work on making public benefits work better for the people they serve. Plus, don’t miss the Reading List at the end!

There are just as many ways to break trust, as to build it

Building trust was a major theme from FormFest; the historically poor experience of government forms is top of mind for designers in this space, recognizing the need to build trust back over time by providing a consistently easeful experience for people filling out forms.

We heard these major points of frustration for users when filling out government forms:

  • Underrepresentation: Applicants of government forms are often from underrepresented groups. This often looks like members of marginalized communities who have been hurt or left behind by the government before (e.g.: immigrants, unhoused, formerly incarcerated, etc). There’s a baseline level of mistrust with government.

Exygy’s takeaway: Do continuous research to be as aware as possible of who may be included and left out by our decisions, and practice Thoughtful Design — a set of standards that our team uses to bridge human centered design principles with trauma-informed and equity-centered processes.

  • Confusing user experience: When forms are hard to use, they also help break people’s trust. The sensation of “this was not designed for me” or that things are hard on purpose. 

Exygy’s takeaway: Enact Thoughtful Design, which compels us to design forms to be simple and universally easy to use.

  • Extraction of sensitive information: Forms can ask for sensitive, and even triggering, information. If it’s not clear how the government is going to use the data or why they need this data, this can create even more distrust. 

Exygy’s takeaway: Only ask for the data you absolutely need in order to fulfill the service.

  • Repeated questions and requests for information: Typing or writing the same information over and over can wear on applicants; people wonder, Didn’t I just give you that information? Why are you asking me this question again?

Exygy’s takeaway: When possible, use pre-filled sections and reuse data, taking the load off of applicants.

  • Completing forms can be emotionally draining: Emotions, stress, and tension are already high when someone is completing a form for benefits, housing, or basic needs. If a question is triggering or confusing, it adds to the stress. 

Exygy’s takeaway: Forms can mitigate that by being more sensitive with triggering questions, using trauma-informed language to support users, and providing tips and helpers to support users’ understanding of questions

Collaboration is essential to the future of forms

Again and again, we were reminded at FormFest that there are a multitude of ways to make necessary change in how things have always been done. FormFest gathered changemakers together so we could learn from each other and leapfrog those learnings to bring back to our work. These sparks of collaboration and learning are essential to fueling us to work at the speed that change needs to happen.

One example of private-public collaboration takes place in our work on Bloom Housing — Exygy’s open-source affordable housing listings service. For the last several years, our team has been working hard to create a digitized common application for affordable housing units across the Bay Area. This is already live with DAHLIA in the City of San Francisco, the common application allows home-seekers to apply for an affordable housing unit through an online application, saving applicants time that was previously spent picking up a paper application and dropping it off at a leasing office. For market-rate housing, digitized applications are far more common, but affordable housing developments across the country are behind in this effort. We’re expanding this functionality to nine counties throughout the Bay Area region, as well as other jurisdictions throughout the United States. While a paper application will still be available to cover all access needs, a digitized housing application leads us closer to Bloom Housing’s goal: make it easier for people to find and apply for affordable housing nationwide. This has been a huge testament to the power of collaboration to change the status quo in service of making an essential human need — affordable housing — accessible to more people. It’s an effort that couldn’t be done without partners across jurisdictional lines.

While working across silos on complex initiatives is key, there are many ways to do so. Design systems, covered in the next notable theme, are one practical way we leverage our expertise to ensure the way that we’re designing forms is as intentional as possible.

Accessible design systems can reduce harm

We heard this sentiment repeat during most of the FormFest talks: A successful form is based on reusable, accessible components derived from thoughtful research.

One talk, in particular, by Austin Hernandez and Anne Peterson of the U.S. Web Design System focused on this. Similar to our custom design system for Bloom Housing, the USWDS aimed to create a set of reusable components that could be utilized across federal offices and teams to create accessible, compliant forms. Their team prioritized research, putting into practice a system of continuous research from the start of the project which ensured that each component in their design system was borne out of a user need and designed to solve that need. The result is a beautiful design system that has great impact: sites like, which makes it simple for citizens to register to vote, check their registration status, and get started with absentee voting was built using the system, along with the VA’s healthcare website which makes it easier for veterans to access healthcare, and, which helps government employees understand how to communicate important information with the public in a way people can understand. 

Forms can be a harmful experience if they aren’t built to accommodate the people they serve. For Anne, that meant that they “were constantly running into forms where [they couldn’t specify who they are] appropriately, because there are no options for that.” To change that narrative, every designed component, content guideline, and accessibility feature in the USWDS has been researched, tested, and confirmed to be universally accessible and compliant. 

Design systems ensure consistency, which saves time for those building forms, gives people a consistent expectation and experience when filling out the forms, and can guarantee accessibility with each new form element or feature because you’ve already built this value into your design.

Note: If you’re someone looking to find more community learnings, connections, and inspirations around design systems, our designers have a talk on Creating a Better Web Through Accessible Design Systems and highly recommend the annual Clarity Conference.

Informing the future

At Exygy, we’re in the business of making it easier for people to access the services and benefits they need. We’re working hard on this through our work on CiviForm, celebrating the chance to expand access to housing for over 8 million people through Bloom Housing and our Bloom Design System, and making it easier for people to gain job skills upon reentry after incarceration through our work with CROP. Through all of these projects, we articulate and practice Thoughtful Design, our interpretation of design thinking, taking the entire system into consideration. At the center of all of this work, we find forms. A good form is universally accessible, easy to understand, simple to complete, simple for teams to build, and above all, a facilitator in accessing services, rather than a barrier to them.

FormFest reminded us that we’re on the road to a better future for forms. Forms are ubiquitous in our daily lives and hold the access key to most everything we do. It is worth our best energy, time, and care to do all we can to improve them.

If you want to be part of this effort, or learn how you can partner with us, please reach out.

Bonus: Reading List!

If you're like us, a new reading list makes you do a happy dance. Enjoy!

  • Continuous Discovery Habits - Teresa Torres
  • Don't Make Me Think - Steve Krug
  • Forms That Work - Caroline Jarrett and Gerry Gaffney
  • Deliberate Intervention - Alexandria Schmidt 
  • Good Services - Lou Downe 
  • The Service Organization - Kate Tarling 
  • Hack Your Bureaucracy - Marina Nitze and Nick Sinai
  • Recoding America - Jennifer Pahlka
  • Power to the Public - Hana Schank and Tara Dawson McGuinness
  • Automating Inequality - Virginia Eubanks

What’s a Rich Text element?

H1 example

H3 example

The rich text element allows you to create and format headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, images, and video all in one place instead of having to add and format them individually. Just double-click and easily create content.

Static and dynamic content editing

A rich text element can be used with static or dynamic content. For static content, just drop it into any page and begin editing. For dynamic content, add a rich text field to any collection and then connect a rich text element to that field in the settings panel. Voila!

How to customize formatting for each rich text

Headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, figures, images, and figure captions can all be styled after a class is added to the rich text element using the "When inside of" nested selector system.

Elle Gover
Senior Product Designer Researcher

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