Human-Centered Design Helps VA Serve Diverse Veterans

The Challenge: More Diverse Veterans Have More Diverse Needs

Human-centered design (HCD) fundamentally aims to understand the needs of a given user audience to shape a good or service to better meet those needs, and to avoid or overcome common user challenges and frustrations. As a capability, HCD is a natural fit for the Veterans Experience Office (VEO), which was created to help VA become leaders in federal customer service quality.

The typical needs of a U.S. Veteran are likely to vary substantially along demographic lines—race, gender, location, age, sexuality, economic status, disability status, and so on. As the demographic profile of Veterans shifts toward greater diversity—the share of women and Latinx Veterans, for example, is projected to nearly double over the next couple of decades—the development and adoption of a data-rich HCD capability, supported by an integrated team of HCD experts and data scientists from Booz Allen, is one of the many ways that VEO is working to get ahead of the customer service challenges that could result.

“Ultimately, success for the VEO is not just about collecting data—it’s about using real-time information and feedback for both short-term service recovery and ongoing improvements to policies, programs, and services.”

The Approach: Understanding Is Key to Serving Diverse Veteran Communities

Data is the raw material that HCD practitioners use to form their insights. Initial qualitative data is gathered through interviews with representative members of the user audience. When possible, these interviews take place in person, onsite in users’ homes or the facilities where they receive care, to learn more about users’ circumstances, and how they interact with the products or services in question.

For example, to help VA better serve the needs of Native American Veterans, Booz Allen and VA HCD practitioners traveled to Native American communities in reservations and other rural areas to hear people’s VA stories, and better understand obstacles that may prevent them from learning about and engaging with VA benefits and services. To get to know an audience and its frustrations, HCD experts must answer questions like, how far are they from the nearest VA facility, and do they have access to adequate transportation? Do they have access to computers, broadband, and other relevant technologies? Are they comfortable navigating websites and filling out online forms? Do they feel heard, respected, and understood by the clinicians and other VA representatives who they interact with?

Booz Allen’s data scientists, working with the HCD team, analyze the results of these interviews to pull out common needs and pain points and identify “moments that matter”—those stops along a customer’s journey that are most impactful to their overall experience and its outcomes. A customer journey map depicts the holistic experience of that customer group and informs customer experience (CX) surveys deployed to dig deeper into certain questions and gather more data from larger numbers of participants. 

The Solution: Building Trust Through Customer Feedback

Ultimately, success for the VEO is not just about collecting data—it’s about using real-time information and feedback for both short-term service recovery and ongoing improvements to policies, programs, and services.

VA’s Medallia-based data collection and analysis platform is called VSignals. The VSignals platform gathers feedback from Veterans, eligible dependents, caregivers, and survivors. It then provides that feedback to VA leaders for process improvement, but also sends that feedback directly to the point of interaction to enable resolution. Booz Allen’s HCD and data science support helps VSignals leverage data collected through extensive interviews, surveys, and social media scraping to illuminate and better meet the needs of all Veterans.

VSignals survey data is broken out by a variety of demographics and often includes free-text comments that can be analyzed in many ways, including via demographic comparisons. By targeting both smaller demographic groups (e.g., a survey of women Veterans enrolled in a certain benefits program), and collecting regular feedback from all Veterans (e.g., a quarterly survey measuring overall trust in VA)—the program’s data scientists have a broad base of information to guide updates to VA policies, programs, and services for individuals and across the enterprise.

With Booz Allen as a partner, VA’s Medallia-based VSignals customer experience data platform has developed and deployed artificial intelligence (AI)-based analytics tools to better process Veteran data. Using an AI method called natural language processing, for example, we help VEO scan the free-text comments sections of hundreds of thousands of survey responses for answers that may signal that a Veteran is in imminent danger of homelessness or self-harm. When present, such indicators are automatically flagged and forwarded to VA crisis intervention specialists for immediate action.

As part of its response to President Biden’s Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities, VEO is engaged in research in partnership with the Veterans Benefits Administration and the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Division of the Veterans Health Administration’s Modernization Office. Together, with support from Booz Allen’s HCD team, the partnership focuses on Veteran members of underserved communities that have been historically underrepresented in the federal government and underserved by, or subject to discrimination in, federal policies and programs. This effort includes: 

  • Working with Native American Veterans, starting in 2021, to develop a journey map and other informational aids that will help the Veterans Benefits Administration improve existing outreach programs and build new solutions tailored to Native American Veteran community needs.
  • Interviewing transgender Veterans, to help VA to gather information on unique challenges for transgender Veterans.
  • Working with VEO and VA’s LGBTQ+ Veteran Work Group to conduct research to highlight the bright spots and pain points encountered by the LGBTQ+ Veteran community when navigating VHA. This research also informed the development of a Quick Start Guide for LGBTQ+ Veterans and outlined short and long-term interventions for VA’s LGBTQ+ Veteran Work Group to focus on in order to enhance services to this population.
  • Designing a journey map that showed a gender-based difference in Veterans’ benefit experience journey and trust of VA, which helped VEO develop a training module for delivering better care to women Veterans, and a medical and socio-emotional timeline tool to help them gain a clearer view of their own health histories and needs.
  • Interviewing various minority and underrepresented Veteran groups across the nation to better understand the experience of minority Veterans in seeking care at their local VA to inform solutions to some of the hurdles identified in this research.

In 2018, VEO was highlighted by the President’s Management Agenda as a federal leader for CX work, and in June 2021, when VA noted a 24% increase in Veterans’ trust of the agency since 2016, it cited CX work as a contributing factor.

The work at VEO is just one of the many ways that VA is advancing efforts to provide equitable service across all demographics of American Veterans, and the many ways that Booz Allen is helping the federal government serve the U.S. population more inclusively.

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