VA Focus on Human-Centered Design, Partnerships Boosts Digital Services

VA Focus on Human-Centered Design, Partnerships Boosts Digital Services

Designing digital services for the user and with partners are critical.

Leaders from the Department of Veterans Affairs are looking to improve digital services for veterans and personnel with a human-centered approach to modernization and by leveraging industry and cross-agency partnerships to achieve optimization.

VA Deputy Chief Veterans Experience Officer Barbara Morton highlighted how human-centered design and collaboration with VA’s Office of Information and Technology and other partners have been critical to improving her office's services and benefits access for veterans. Morton pointed to last year’s revamp of VA.gov as a key example of that success.

“We applied the best practice in human-centered design, went out, talked to veteran and said, ‘Hey, if you’re seeking a front door to enter VA digitally, which type of web property do you look to?’ Morton said at GovernmentCIO Media & Research’s House Oversight and VA Digital Modernization event Wednesday. “The feedback that came back is they [lean] toward VA.gov, so we knew that was a really strong brand to be the front door with transactions with VA for veterans and their families.”

From there, VEO and OIT worked closely, applying human-centered design principles to prototype and design the VA.gov website that relaunched last fall. Since then, she reported that veteran feedback satisfaction with the website increased by 90%.

The partnerships that offices across the VA have kindled within the agency, between agencies and with industry have been critical in not only making VA.gov successful, but also for current and future digital modernization efforts. With the sudden demand for digital applications and services amid COVID-19, this was especially true. 

“During the COVID outbreak between ... we saw over 125 vendors. 125. We normally do about 200 vendor visits a year, but we have just surpassed that tremendously, and it’s because of partnering. It’s because of getting those on-the-spot capabilities, but doing it smartly,” said Deputy CIO Luwanda Jones at the VA's Office of Strategic Sourcing.

One of the key ways industry and the VA are working together to further sharpen digital services are in data optimization efforts. Susan McHugh-Polley, senior strategic advisor at World Wide Technology Public Sector who most recently serviced as deputy assistant secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said she has seen how the VA is pushing to make data more usable and impactful for its customers.

“How does VA and industry help you really kind of pause and optimize and utilize all the data that you’re collecting to really add value and bring back the successful outcomes that will help the veterans, as well as making sure that the employees … [are] really using data to add value,” McHugh-Polley said. 

Morton added that other agency partners like U.S. Digital Service, which VA CTO Charles Worthington largely fostered, have been an immense help in bringing the technological expertise the VA needs to improve its digital services.

“The United States Digital Services team — Charles Worthington came from that team, and he’s bringing folks who are industry leaders ... they have all this technology background, and what a great strategy that he’s leveraging to bring in and start to build this capability in addition to leveraging outside help inside,” Morton said.

Acquisition professionals from the General Services Administration and the Office of Management and Budget have also been critical for Jones’ team, she said. But above all else, finding an optimization across these partnerships, strategizing in scalable ways and finding solutions that work for the veteran have been especially important, the panelists said.

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