Complaint Database Search Tool

Helping CFPB employees stay connected to the issues and concerns of consumers

Project Date
2015 - on-going
Project Team
Seph Coster, Dev Mehta, Andrea Dinneen, Mingfeng Yang
UX & Product Design, User Research

Since July 2011, the CFPB has taken in over 432,223 complaints, on a range of consumer financial products and services (learn more about our complaint portal). This process has helped consumers connect with financial companies to understand issues with their mortgages, fix errors on their credit reports, stop unlawful calls from debt collectors, and get direct responses about problems with their credit cards, bank accounts, or private student loans.

The CFPB also analyzes the data to identify trends and problems in the marketplace to help us do a better job supervising companies, enforcing federal consumer financial laws and writing rules and regulations. All departments at CFPB make requests for datasets from the Consumer Complaint Database to support these efforts.

In an effort to improve (1) the experience of culling complaints from the database and (2) achieving more accurate and useful results, we were tasked with building out a custom search interface for the database, employing elastic search capabilities.

See the Public Database

Complaint volume

We currently receive about 20,000 complaints monthly through our online, phone, and paper complaint forms.

Our database now consists of over 700,000 complaints submitted to over 3,000 companies. Our challenge is to develop tools that let the Bureau bring the voice of the consumer into examinations, outreach, and enriched analyses of the financial marketplace.


Assessing current approaches

We spent some time defining the anatomy of complaints and dissecting user stories to backup potential interface design features.

We also interviewed analysts about their current processes to identify key pain points, such as only being able to export complaints by amending the URL in one of their current tools. Much of their current work is manual and time consuming, such as reading long complaint narratives in excel and copy-pasting them into word to do keyword highlighting.

"I have an exam coming up that will require complaint data"


"I need to look at complaints over time to understand a market"


"I want to see if there are complaints on an issue we are researching"

Consumer Engagement
... ...

173 words

Average complaint narrative length

58 minutes

Time required to read 100 complaints

28 days

Time required to read 700,000+ complaints

Analytics System

The database search tool is part of an overall suite of analytics tools, including auto-classifying complaints using natural language processing.


Search Modes

Investigatory vs. exploratory modes for searching the complaint database based on level of familiarity with the dataset.


Initial Search Experience

Advanced search syntax, previous search logs, and collections of results

Efficiency accelerators

Save users time by providing clickthrough to add syntax directly to the search bar

Recognition rather than recall

Highlight parts of advanced search syntax that are editable vs. part of the syntax structure.


Exploring alternatives

Our team uses GitHub to post issues & bugs, explore design options, and submit code changes.


Search Results

Filter results by structured data fields, add complaints to collections for further review, and export results as raw data

Consistency for primary actions

Develop standard terminology to differentiate key actions on the results page, so users can link actions like saving your search, adding to collections, and exporting data with the associated outcomes.



We explored microinteractions for experiences on specific complaints, such as selecting / deselecting for export (shown right) or adding notes.

Complaint Detail View

Assess all data fields, review complaint timeline, highlight key issues

Provide ambient information

Flag steps in the complaint process with color-coded indicators to highlight issues such as delayed responses from companies or disputes from consumers.