A test participant asks a question about the Census internet response form.
2020 U.S. Census   Research & Testing

Project Overview



A Code for America project to gather user research and test data on the 2020 Census internet response form for the U.S. Census Bureau. I led the creation of the testing prototype and testing efforts in Oakland, CA (one of four cities selected for the project).


  • Project Lead
  • User Research
  • UX Design

Project Goals

  • Create interactive replica of the 2020 Census internet response form
  • Conduct user testing and research with representatives from hard to count groups
  • Report findings to U.S. Census Bureau

Work Summary

  • Co-created interactive replica of the 2020 Census form
  • Managed testing program in Oakland, CA
  • Conducted user research and testing
  • Co-authored final report to U.S. Census Bureau


The First Digital Census

2020 is the first year the decennial U.S. Census questionnaire is available in an online digital form, in addition to the traditional paper forms that have been used for centuries. The results from the digital versions of the form will be significantly faster and cheaper to tally compared to their paper counterparts. However, this new format for the questionnaire may present unique challenges for some participants.

Identifying Usability Issues

At the time of this project the Census Bureau had already locked the design of the form. The purpose of user research and testing at this stage was to identify what parts of the form will be most difficult for people to complete. This information would then be shared with organizations who are preparing to help people complete the form.


Recreating The Digital Census Form

In order to gather the research and test data for the project we needed an interactive copy of the digital questionnaire. However, for reasons beyond our control, the U.S. Census Bureau could not provide out team with access to the official questionnaire. The best we could get was a Youtube video of a demonstration of the digital questionnaire that had been presented to a panel of experts in late 2019.

A screenshot of the Census demo before a panel of experts.

Pieced Together From Screenshots

I scoured the 4 hours of video demo footage to find every single view of content in the digital Census form. Every time I found a unique view I saved a screenshot. I created a labeling system for identifying the relative sequence of each screenshot. The result was a collection of over 50 screen views ordered sequentially.

A screenshot of a demo of the Census internet response form.
The full set of screenshots of the internet response form as presented in the Census demo video.

Building A Prototype In A Weekend

Using our sequential set of screenshots as a foundation two other UX designers and I created an interactive prototype of the Census form over the course of a 3-day weekend. Our selection of the Figma prototyping tool enabled us to simultaneously edit the same file which made collaboration a breeze (and a delight).

A collection of common design elements and styles in our prototype.
The full set of screens, and their interactive links (blue lines), in our prototype of the Census internet response form.
A view of the interactive links (blue lines) of one individual screen within the Census form.

Live Prototype Site

Once we had completed the prototype site it was shared with the Code for America network including 3 other cities that had been selected for targeted research and testing.

The prototype site can be viewed here.

The starting screen of our interactive Census prototype.

Limitations Of The Prototype

  • Only in English
  • Text cannot be translated by screen readers
  • Text size cannot be adjusted
  • Cannot type in form fields
  • Not all response options can be selected
  • Use of browser back button may results in unexpected navigation
  • Not optimized for keyboard navigation

Evaluating Usability

I managed a user research and testing program that included several different studies across a number of community centers. Each research study involved 1-2 participants and 1-2 facilitators at at time. Sessions lasted between 30-60 minutes each. Test participants were asked a series of questions as they went through the process of completing the replica Census internet response form.

Test participants interacting with the prototype at the Oakland Public Library.
A photo of the team that built the prototype, taken right after conducting a user research study.


Key Takeaways

Once the research and testing phase was complete I consolidated all the data and synthesized the following key takeaways:

  • Unclear when more page content is available via vertical scrolling
  • Default test size can be hard to read
  • Language guides are helpful for those less familiar, or comfortable, with English
  • Welcome page copy may require too high of a reading comprehension level

Challenging Questions

We found that the following questions within the Census form presented a significant degree of difficulty for some or all of the test participants:

  • Census ID number
  • Hispanic origin
  • Race
  • Sex
  • Number of people in household
  • Additional people living or staying at…
  • Relationship of additional residents
  • Do any of the following people usually live or stay somewhere else…

Recommendations (Final Report)

We included the following recommendations in our final report to the U.S. Census Bureau:

  • Clarify which questions are mandatory or optional
  • Raise awareness of existing resources (ex. language guides)
  • Raise awareness of most challenging questions
  • Provide additional clarification and guidance for most challenging questions
  • Share these findings, and any relevant support, with questionnaire assistance centers and other community organizations offering Census support
  • Encourage community sites to make support resources available at the point of access to digital or paper forms