NCAN Tests FAFSA Mobile App, Recommends Usability Improvements

August 30, 2018

By Kim Cook, Executive Director

Watch for a companion post on "9 Things to Know About the FAFSA Mobile App," in which my colleague MorraLee Keller will share an overview of the new functions in the FAFSA section of the myStudentAid app.

This summer, NCAN worked with the office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) to user test the beta version of the myFAFSA component of the myStudentAid app, also known as the FAFSA mobile app. We shared our findings from this user experience testing with the FSA team as suggestions for short-term and long-term enhancements to the app.

NCAN sincerely appreciates FSA's willingness to share the app with us for user testing and the office's engagement and responsiveness to our recommendations to further improve the app for its next release in October, for the 2019-20 application. Our thanks also go to NASFAA, NACAC, ASCA, and NCAN members College Forward (Austin, TX), and DC CAP (Washington, D.C.) for helping us to recruit testers from their ranks.

Here's what we learned when an outside user testing firm, Enterprise Research Group, asked access advisers, financial aid administrators, school counselors, independent students, and pairs of dependent students and parents to try out the beta version of the app. These test users were identified by marketing firms and represent a range of income levels, races, and levels of experience with the FAFSA. The findings were consistent across user type and demographics.

Overall, the FAFSA smartphone application worked well and received positive feedback from all tester segments with specific praise for:

  • Overall look and feel.
  • Ease of use.
  • The question-by-question screen design.
  • Numeric keypads for SSN, DOB, and similar fields.
  • The screen between sections with check marks assuring users that completed areas had been saved.
  • Educational resources for the new-to-FAFSA audience.

The app testers identified four priority areas for improvement that we hope are addressed in the October app update. In the meantime, users should proceed with caution in these areas of the app, which caused problems for the test users:

Signing the Application. In cases where both a dependent student and parent needed to sign, almost all participants missed the need for a second signature. Once students clicked "Submit" on their signature page, they went to a "Student Signature Submitted" screen with text that most students missed indicating that their FAFSA would be processed after their parent signed the form. Additionally, the navigation button at the bottom of that screen is labeled "Home" and returns the student to the home/login screen, not a screen prompting a parent to log in to sign the form. The word "Submit" and the return to the home/login screen made most believe they had completed the application. Since the application is not complete until both the parent and student have logged in separately and signed, this can be problematic and result in incomplete applications.

NCAN recommended renaming the "Student Signature Submitted" screen to "Parent Login Required." We also recommended changing the name of the navigation button at the bottom of that screen from "Home" to "Next" to imply that further steps are needed to complete the application.

(Please do not copy and/or redistribute the images in this post without permission from NCAN.)

Not Erasing Prior Work When Parents Log in With a Save Key After Students Sign. The app allows a student or parent to complete their section on a mobile device or computer and then for the other user to complete their section on another device, using the save key. Users testing this function were confused by the navigation buttons labeled "Start Over" and "Continue." They did not receive a warning that the "Start Over" option would delete any work already completed by the student.

NCAN recommended adding a warning message that says, "Starting over will clear out any information previously submitted via the student application. Are you sure you want to do this?" and requiring a second confirmation action to start the application over.

Sending the FAFSA to Multiple Schools. Many users did not realize they could send their FAFSA to more than one institution because they were confused by the navigation button language "New Search" and "Next." They mistakenly thought "New Search" was asking if they wanted search for a new school to replace the one they already had on their screen. If users instead clicked "Next," the app moved them to the next question without a prompt or clear choice to add another school.

NCAN recommended renaming the "New Search" button to "Add More" to allow, and encourage, students to send their FAFSA to multiple schools.

Reporting the Number of People in the Household. App testers had difficulty understanding this question, as people often do in the web and paper FAFSA formats too. We realize this question is required by statute, so we focused our comments in this case on how the app presents the question, as opposed to discussing whether it should be included on the FAFSA.

The app forces students through the household worksheet on screen, but it prepopulates the counts for "Your parent" and "You" in fields that cannot be edited . The "Your parent’s children" count in this section should not include the applicant, and that instruction is often missed.

NCAN recommended better labeling ("Other children" instead of "Your parent's children") and more instructions in this section, but appreciates that this is a complicated question across platforms.

It's important to note that we tested the beta app for 2018-19 new filers. The beta app did not have certain key functionalities, including the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, renewal applications, and the ability to make corrections, that are expected in the October launch, so we were unable to test those specific functions. We do know, however, that the IRS has not optimized its site for mobile use, so are watching to see how DRT navigation presents on a mobile device. As FSA releases more information on the updated version of the app, we will keep you posted.

It's also important to note that we focused our feedback on the app, not the questions that are required on the FAFSA by statue. (We have a lot of thoughts on that subject too – see our Fix FAFSA site for more.) For this user testing, we merely asked if this platform worked well and perhaps even had the potential to help more students complete a FAFSA by meeting them where they are. And for students today, that means on their mobile devices!

You too can now download the beta version of the myStudentAid app from the Android or Apple app store and try it out. But remember, only new filers completing the application for the 2018-19 school year can use the app at this time. We need and look forward to your feedback on the app so we can continue to advocate for a simple FAFSA and make the most of this opportunity to leverage new technology.

NCAN will share updates as FSA rolls out training and resources for the 2019-20 app. We’ll also update our "9 Things to Know About the FAFSA Mobile App" piece once we see the new functionality, particularly for the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.

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