Story-driven experience research on pandemic unemployment

The COVID-19 pandemic shut downs and stay-at-home orders starting in March 2020 put millions of Americans out of work. On March 28, 2020, Congress passed the CARES Act, which, among other things, made billions of dollars available in new pandemic unemployment programs, but states struggled to implement and deliver these benefits. As of the end of July, 30 million people had applied for unemployment assistance, many of them for the first time, ever.

In my role with Project Redesign at, and in partnership with New America’s New Practice lab, I led a team of researchers to interview people from across the U.S. in May and June to learn what it has been like to apply for unemployment and other benefits during the pandemic.

Telling the story of living experts in near-real time

When Tara McGuinness contacted me about doing this project, she was ready to experiment with methods and techniques. She and her colleagues in the New Practice Lab at New America wanted to bring the experience people were having to life for law makers and advocates who usually make their decisions recommendations based on what they see in spreadsheets. We wanted to do a few big things with our approach.

Amplify voices and elevate stories of real people. Those real people are the experts on the experience they’re having — living experts. To convey the experience people had applying for unemployment and other benefits during the pandemic, we documented “thick data” in 2- to 4-page stories. The purpose of those stories was to make the people real for readers, who we hoped would be law makers and their staff members.

Urgently learn about the lived experience. The urgency came from 2 factors. One was that the depth of the needs changed over just a few weeks. As time passed, the experience claimants had shifted from applying to waiting for funds to show up. In the meantime, bills needed to be paid, savings were depleted, jobs disappeared permanently. The other consideration was that Congress would be drafting the next stimulus and recovery bills in May and June. We had a chance to get the stories to people who influenced the design of those bills.

Conduct the research in the open. Show the work. To invite everyone in. Those stories, along with a few slides that highlighted a story or two and key takeaways, went to partners on the project, community-based organizations, media, and to legislative staff on Capitol Hill. We had to give up being precious about how polished the deliverables were. They needed to be just good enough.

We had to give up being precious about how polished the deliverables were. They needed to be just good enough.

It was our intention to invite partners and community-based organizations and legislative staff to observe the interviews. Just scheduling the interviews and conducting them within the time we had proved to be pretty challenging, so we didn’t get to do that. I feel like we know how to do it now, and probably could pull it off for future research projects.

We did develop a research kit and a workbook for anyone who wants to do research like this. You can download the research plan, interview guide, and story template, along with a few other tools for free from the project website.

Share what we learned publicly, as we learned it. Typically, a research team would do the interviews, transcribe them, code the transcriptions, and analyze the coding to identify findings. As you can imagine, this would take a while — for 33 interviews, it could take months. We didn’t have months. We didn’t even have weeks.

As we captured what was working for claimants, what wasn’t, who helped them, who needed help, what time passing felt like, what else people had going on, we wrote up the interviews into stories within a day of doing the interview. We collected interviews together each week, and distributed those collections of 5 to 15 interviews each week.

We were not focused on making policy recommendations. Instead, we documented the stories and drew observations and insights from what we heard.

Doing experience research during a pandemic

There were more than the usual constraints on “field” research in May and June 2020. For example, we couldn’t actually go into the field. It wasn’t safe for the research team or the participants because anyone could be carrying COVID-19.

We also needed to hurry up and do this work because the benefits that were designed to help people were also scheduled to run out. Arranging home visits and traveling takes a lot of time. Congress had set time limits on the first stimulus and recovery bills. We wanted to use what we learned to help the people designing the next set of stimulus and recovery bills make good decisions.

So, it’s not like we could do ethnographic research, really. No access to living spaces. Not enough time. We went into the study thinking like ethnographers, but we needed a few shortcuts. So we borrowed an idea I learned from Kate Gomoll for the interview stories, and some techniques from collective story harvesting. So, we’re calling it experience research, and we relied on the living experts to help us begin to understand what they were going through. We used approaches lovingly borrowed from equity-centered community design, developed by Creative Reaction Lab.

Delivering stories, briefs, and a workbook

The 2- to 4-page stories we wrote after each interview, centering on a few focus questions, were our first deliverables, and we published them each week of the project as we completed interviews. Over 3 weeks, we conducted 33 interviews.

Next, using theme or lenses that we identified ahead of the interviews, we pulled observations and quotes from each interview and conducted some light synthesis. We used that synthesis to write briefs for each of the themes.

We wanted not only to convey insights from these interviews, but also to make the methods and techniques available to others. We hope that researchers in the public and private sectors will pick up inspiration, at least, from how we did the study. We also want to make it easy for organizations that don’t have professional researchers to learn what is happening with their constituents. Our research workbook and kit is available for free to anyone who wants to use them.

The links below open up PDFs. (Sorry about that. Soon we’ll have a beautiful website with fully accessible content.)


Themed briefs

Doing research like this yourself

About the project 

Full report — Stories, briefs, participants, methods, mechanics, team

Out of work in California because of Covid-19?

We want to learn from you what it’s like to go through the process of learning about and applying for unemployment assistance in California. We’re looking for folks living in California to spend 30 to 60 minutes with an interviewer, online.

We hope to learn what questions people have about the process of applying for unemployment assistance. We will use the information in this study to improve California government websites.

You must be at least 18 years old to take part in the study.

If you want to volunteer to be in this study, please answer these questions. (This is so we can determine whether you qualify and how to contact you if you do.)

We’ll need your email address to make an appointment for the study, but otherwise, we’re not collecting any personally identifying information.

This is independent research, which is part of Project Redesign at the National Conference on Citizenship in cooperation with the California Office of Digital Innovation. Your personal information will NOT be shared or reported. Your participation in this questionnaire and / or the study we’re conducting has no bearing on whether you get cash or other assistance from the state of California and if you do, how much.