User Centered Design in CalSAWS

Posted by Jenn Tracy, April 8, 2019, CalFresh Participation

Advocate Recommendations for User Centered Design in the CalSAWS System 

Thirteen million Californians depend on one of three software systems, managed at the county level through consortia, to handle eligibility determinations and enrollment for social safety net programs including CalFresh, CalWORKS, Medi-Cal, and General Relief. The software systems are called Statewide Automated Welfare Systems (SAWS). The federal government recently announced that California must migrate to a single system, now referred to as CalSAWS, by 2023.

CalSAWS is being developed from the existing Los Angeles system, called LRS, but a number of ancillary systems and business processes will need to be created or enhanced, including technologies for contact centers, document management, lobby management, workflow management, the online portal and mobile app. Additionally, the ongoing CalSAWS maintenance and operations will include changes to policy and usability that will benefit from User Centered Design (UCD).

UCD is “an explicit understanding of users, tasks, and environments; driven and refined by user centered evaluation; and that addresses the whole user experience.”[1]  In this regard, UCD should be part of the culture of the CalSAWS development[2] (including ancillary systems), migration, and beyond, as evidenced by the inclusion of procurement and planning language focused on engaging users at reasonable intervals through each crucial step of the procurement, design, implementation and ongoing maintenance processes.

Consumer advocates see the development of a successful CalSAWS as a high priority due to the considerable impact the technology has on the implementation of policy, the ability to track client outcomes, the user experience, and most importantly, the ability for economically-vulnerable consumers to access and maintain the benefits to which they are entitled. Engaging actual users, identified as consumers, eligibility workers, application assisters, and county administrators, is a vital part of creating a functioning CalSAWS and ancillary systems.

This document intends to communicate advocate interest in developing a strong and functioning CalSAWS and ancillary systems through the integration of UCD and user centered culture, to encourage exploration of alternative means for user engagement that may allow for a broader inclusion of users with less burden on each individual[3], and to relay actionable recommendations to prioritize and incorporate UCD in the procurement, design, development and implementation processes.

You can read our memo: User Centered Design in the Development of the CalSAWS System.


[1] User centered design Basics. Retrieved from:
[2]  Guarino, Dave. Code for America. Recommendation 5, “Make this the start of a new way of working.” Maximizing the opportunity of a new California Social Services Portal. Code for America
[3] The memo is an expansion on the perspectives in the “Approaches to Design” presented by CWDA at the CalSAWS Stakeholder Engagement check in meeting. November 2018.