What is the best way to apply for an immigrant visa and save money at the same time?
What is the best way to apply for an immigrant visa and save money at the same time?
A data-driven project with the goal of helping people apply for an immigrant visa. It aims to assist those who decide or can not afford to hire a lawyer.
Immigration is a stressful process. It takes up a lot of energy, money and time.
“The challenge when coming to apply for your green card is often having no idea where all this paperwork is, or which forms on the government sites you are supposed to file — which is why many hire lawyers.”
Helen V. Holmes
What happens if someone can’t afford a lawyer?
This project started when I decided to look into immigration data and I realized how many immigrant visas were issued each year. Reading the reports from 2017 on the U.S. Department Of State – Bureau Of Consular Affairs’ website I discovered that more than 70% of the visa denied were re-evaluated and then issued when additional evidence was sent to the government offices.
Many errors committed during the process were related to a wrong interpretation of the documents or just simple omissions often caused by lack of information.
The majority of people who went through the visa application process are very active online, they write blog posts about the process describing each step in detail and they’re very active on forums as well trying to help people who are starting now with the process and need answers.
A recurring pattern I found during my research was the money topic. Many people decided to go through the entire process without hiring a lawyer because of the cost of the fees in addition to the visa fee.
An infographic created in 2014 by a paid service called Rapid Visa gathers data regarding the amount of money spent on a K-1 visa process. What caught my attention is the big difference in money spent between hiring a lawyer and doing the process by yourself.
The ultimate goal is to make the immigration process easier for everyone involved, with a particular focus on people who decide or cannot afford to hire a lawyer.
Unfortunately, none of this data told me how many of those applications were filed by lawyers and how many by end users.
When people pay lawyers, they trust them to do the right job. This product will help users to follow the procedures and make sure all steps are covered and all documents are gathered and properly filled out, whether they’re assisted by a lawyer or not.
People who cannot afford a lawyer need to fully understand the visa application process in all its steps because they ultimately need to succeed in it and get a visa.
The information organization is a priority. With that comes easy navigation and intuitive flow. The user needs to feel comfortable reading through the information, confident in taking action in each step and not being overwhelmed by terminology.
My user is anyone who lives outside the U.S., meets the criteria to apply for an immigrant visa and has the desire to live in the United States. I specifically address to people who cannot afford a lawyer or decide not to hire one.
I created my personas based on interviews with different lawful permanent residents and many articles and forum posts read during the research phase.
Michael and Mairi
Michael is American and met Mairi while he was traveling in Portugal, her country of origin. They fell in love and started a long distance relationship. They decided to get married when Michael was in Portugal but their desire to live in the U.S. has always been strong.
Because of Michael not speaking Portuguese and jobs opportunity they decide that Portugal doesn’t work for them.
They start the process and apply for a Spouse Visa. They cannot afford a lawyer because Michael doesn’t have a job and Mairi can’t afford such expensive fees on top of the visa costs. They will have to go through the process on their own.
“With the cost of possible appeals, ancillary forms and fees that different circumstances might require, and medical examination and mailing costs, it would be easy to drop $2,000 just on government fees.”
“All things included, then, we paid about $2,433 for our green card journey. That’s a lot for us! And it would have been a lot more had we hired a lawyer.”
I realized that many people who went through this process are very active on forums or decided to share their experiences online to help people. They know how hard and complicated it was and they’re being 100% honest while writing about their process. It definitely was a great source for my study and it helped me to get to know my users and their struggles.
Pain points can be found throughout the entire process. Users have questions even when assisted by lawyers but especially when they have to face this process on their own.
There is a minimum of 14 documents to present only as a first step. Bureaucratic terminology is complicated and the majority of documents cost money.
USCIS fees, document costs, and medical expenses. The costs of the entire application process are not communicated upfront. The user needs to research and find out what could be the estimated average cost for that specific process (it depends on countries and places). On top of that, the user needs to research lawyer’s fees in case he/she decides to hire one.
The first step of the process requires an average of 14 documents to be presented. There will be many more documents required throughout the process.
The user has to do online research to discover what kind of visa to apply for. Online research will be most likely needed to find a lawyer and potentially to compare lawyers’ fees as well. Even starting with the minimum amount of research required (when hiring a lawyer) the user will have to do some online research. This process will be way more frustrating when the user decides not to hire a lawyer.
The user is most likely someone not familiar with the legal jargon and possibly doesn’t speak English as a first language.
Lawful Permanent Resident or LPR, Alien, Petition for Alien Relative, Affidavit of Support. These are only a few terms used in the explanation of the visa immigrant process.
During the process, a lot of questions come up and often the user doesn’t have a definitive answer or doesn’t know where to get it.
Each step of the process has a minimum of a month to an average of 3-6 months of wait. The entire process could slow down because of bureaucratic timing or documents that need to be re-filed.
“When I was married my husband and I had to apply for his green card. I had no conception of what a green card was, how we got one, and what having a green card meant. As an American citizen, I was completely in the dark in this respect.”
Helen V. Holmes
Time. There are so much data and so many different situations to analyze that would take weeks of research. I decided then to start small and focus my attention on spouse-based visa.
Amount of information. The number of visas and all the documents required is a tiny part of the entire project yet are already overwhelming to the eye. Sorting through all the information and being able to prioritize and rank it was definitely a challenge.
When I decided to focus my attention on government data and especially immigration, I didn’t know how many visas existed and how many applications per year were analyzed. I decided then to focus on immigrant visas and I was surprised to see how many visas were issued per year and how many were denied (33% of applications). I was especially shocked when I realized that 73% of reasons why petitions were denied could’ve been somehow prevented.
Questions and issues. Users face so many different problems and situations during the visa process that it’s impossible to prevent them all. Some of them depend on their country’s laws and others are related to their past and experiences. I decided to focus on the most common questions found on blogs and forum and design for users without the required assistance of a lawyer (for example people with criminal convictions or previous use of false documents).
It’s important to have a clear idea of the value and benefits of the product against its costs. To clarify this, I defined the app’s value proposition using a value prop canvas.
My product will ease the process of applying for an immigrant visa and save money on lawyers.
I then analyzed the value of having a digital or a physical product.
A digital solution could be the best idea, easy access, portable and usable everywhere. Users could review their documents in a digital form and follow the process with daily updates.
A physical solution would be helpful for non-tech savvy users or those without access to smartphones. It would collect all the information and documents in one place. It would give contact information each step of the way and provide useful resources.
What pushed me towards a digital solution.
The user needs portable and easy-access to documents.
Jan Chipchase lived in 5 different countries, UK, Germany, China, Japan and finally the US. He talks about the experience of moving among countries for different reasons and he defines the importance of a digital product here:
“Keep a digital scan of all your important documents and adopt an easy to remember naming strategy. […] The benefit of having scans on hand becomes immediately apparent just prior to the move — when your stress level is at its highest and everyone wants a copy of something yesterday.”
There is a lot of information that needs to be collected and stored throughout a long period. In most cases the user will need these documents to renew the visa or file for other documents many years after getting the first visa approved. I want my product to facilitate the storage of documents and even if a physical copy will always be required, having a digital copy saved will help the user filter through the information.
Easy access also means having the possibility of always checking the case status. There is no need to look through the papers to find the current case number because it’s all organized on the user’s phone and one simple tap will show the current status of the application.
This product is a mobile app that collects all the necessary information to apply for an immigrant visa. It offers the possibility to store a digital copy of the original documents, to check the status of the application on a daily basis, and to be guided along the process with reminders when a deadline is near to be reached. A copy of the documents will be provided when possible or as a reference for comparison. Costs and necessary contact information will be provided for each step as well.
The first approach was to identify the user flow and create an easy way to sort through all the information and create a clear path for the user to follow.
I started sketching each screen and while sketching, more ideas came to mind and I added some features and reduced others while trying to best group the information.
It was necessary to have a search button so that different information could be reached from different screens.
Documents are identified with codes and complicated jargon but the user’s need is also to understand what the documents are and what information they carry.
One of the biggest challenges was actually grouping the information in a way that made sense for the user. I had to think about the process to find them and where to look for them.
The amount of information, documents, and terminology needs to be controlled and cannot overwhelm the user.
A design system is necessary to organize the information and have the same group data presented always in the same form to the user.
I then created an initial set of screens to present a clear process, documentation, costs description, and instructions.
I am currently analyzing my first user testing’s feedback so that I can implement and improve my product.
I decided to test the information organization and the structure of each page. I need to start with a solid base to be able to display the data and make it easy to read.
My next step is implementing the IA and design system based on the feedback I gathered and then proceeding with the second round of user testing.
While thinking about my user, I realized that there are people who don’t own a smartphone but have access to the internet via computer. I will start working on a desktop application concept and sketch some ideas while analyzing how the task and user flow changes using a different platform.
I also pursued the physical product solution and I would like to dedicate more time to it as well. I believe it would be a great asset to the digital app. The user still needs to keep a physical copy of the documents and it would be great if the user would be able to get all the plain documents to fill out and a storage space for the original documents.
The final goal at this point would be testing the product with someone who is starting the visa application process and would be willing to test my product on the side. It would be unusual to have a year-long user testing but I would love to find someone up to the task!
It’s important for the petitioner to keep a copy of each document and to bring them to each appointment when moving to the United States.
This product solution is designed along the lines of the “Stitch Fix” box. It’s a goody box without monthly subscription required. Once the user has chosen the type of visa needed, a box will be sent to his/her address with all the information required in a binder.
The binder contains the copy of each needed document with costs and instructions on how to send them and when. Other details are provided along with the main instructions and space for the original copies-to-keep has been already made with appropriate named folders.
Looking back at my process I am very satisfied with how the design stayed true to my value proposition.
I dedicated a majority of the time to the research and analysis phase and if I had more time I would have liked to have implemented that phase even further, by interviewing people who went through the visa application process (with and without the help of a lawyer), by studying and analyzed different immigration visa processes and not only the spouse-based visa, and interviewing immigration lawyers to discover more about the bureaucratic process.