Empire Justice Center

Incorporating human-centered design to improve online financial services


The Empire Justice Center is a New York-based nonprofit that works to achieve social and economic justice for people in the state who are poor, disabled or disenfranchised. One of the organization’s many offerings is its CASH program — Creating Assets, Savings and Hope. The CASH program provides financial services to low-income families, including free tax preparation and financial coaching. The CASH program serves more than 5,000 families per year, and 80 percent of the people using the program’s services are repeat clients. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the Empire Justice Center to close its physical offices and shift everything to an online format, making it more difficult to communicate, connect with, and support low income families.

Discussing finances and taxes can be a sensitive or confusing topic, and the CASH program relied heavily on making the clients feel comfortable, cared for and supported. The lack of in-person interactions made it difficult to bring that human-centered element of the services to life. Clients were also encouraged to bring tax forms and other financial documentation to their appointments. With the shift to digital services, collecting the paperwork via email was becoming a challenge. The Empire Justice Center’s team wanted to improve the CASH program’s website to better communicate with current and potential clients, and also needed to make changes to its workflow to adapt to the digital services. With tax season looming, the team was eager to make the updates and improve its online presence and processes.

Our approach

Volunteers with U.S. Digital Response connected with The Empire Justice Center’s team and began work on a website audit and stakeholder meetings to better understand the needs, problems, and priorities. The USDR team found that the content on the CASH program’s website was confusing and, in some cases, inaccessible, and that the site was difficult for the Empire Justice Center’s team to maintain and customize. Additionally, the program’s documentation and resources had been stored on an office computer that could not be accessed remotely, making it challenging to track clients’ documents that were being submitted via email as processes were digitized.

USDR volunteers focused on cleaning the site’s layout and making the content friendlier and more accessible. They were quickly able to mock up versions of the improved website using Figma and shared the designs with the Empire Justice Center’s team using Google Slides and clickable prototypes. From there, the volunteers implemented the changes, which included updating the images on the site for improved accessibility, adding a Frequently Asked Questions section, and simplifying the back end of the site to allow the team to duplicate pages and make edits as needed. USDR’s volunteers also added automation and notifications to make it easier for the CASH program’s staff to track the status of existing clients’ taxes and supporting documents.

“When the USDR team discovered the security issues with our organizational website, they immediately contacted us and worked with our team to move our hosting to a new company. Paul was available at all hours to troubleshoot and assist our team with any issues or questions we had. Our site is now secure and updated because of working with USDR.

Kristi Hughes
Vice President
Empire Justice Center


In the course of updating the new website, 3,000 errors on the back end of the site were fixed. The CASH program’s new website is clearer, more accessible, and now works on mobile devices. The Empire Justice Center’s organizational website is now secure with a new hosting company and is updated on regular basis.

“We’re all going through a very urgent crisis for the country and world, so it feels good to take skills you apply to a day job and lend them to areas where you can see an immediate impact.”

Jia Liu, USDR Volunteer

Meet the team

Jia Liu
Jia is an experienced product designer, working at Benchling. Previously, he worked at LinkedIn and Coursera.
Paul Schreiber
Paul is an engineering and technology leader with a background in journalism, social impact. He was a longtime volunteer with the USDR Tools Team.
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