A Department of Veterans Affairs innovation specialist says return on investment (ROI) needs to be at the forefront of the agency’s human-centered design (HCD) projects to gain greater leadership buy-in.
“We are distinctly situated to seamlessly translate qualitative outputs to quantitative inputs. But because the work we do is so personal, and it's so deeply connected to our users, sometimes putting dollar signs in front of that work doesn't seem like the right decision,” said Mike Catania, a VA innovation specialist, at the 2022 Government UX Summit hosted by Digital.gov Wednesday. “To me though, calculating the return on investment for any and every project makes our work more defensible to anyone that sees it and ensures that our projects are fully funded and not left to die half-finished or never funded at all.”
VA has been on a journey to incorporate HCD into its modernization projects to improve customer experiences and solutions. VA’s innovation leaders have leveraged HCD to develop best practices, design standards and ensure ease of use.
HCD is an iterative process and has six primary steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test and implement. As the agency continues to launch new projects relying on HCD, Catania said that it’s critical that innovators display value and ROI to ensure these initiatives are set up for success, receive proper funding and make it into the hands of the veteran.
"The success of this project relies largely on the designer's ability to put aside their love for a given solution and instead to fall in love with the problem,” Catania said. “What we're doing wrong is not communicating our value in a way that's compatible with executive decision making.”
Innovators must create a “business case for innovation” by calculating ROI, which reduces uncertainty from senior leadership and improves buy-in for innovation. By providing a range or estimation of outcomes, innovators are able to provide a better view of project outcomes.
"Financial models are built for range data or sensitivities, so it's perfectly reasonable for you to provide a range of potential ROI outcomes,” Catania said. “By taking a portfolio view, and adding a little bit of math behind it, we can easily demonstrate the value of any innovation program.”
VA’s Spark-Seed-Spread Innovation Investment Program aims to identify and accelerate employee-inspired innovations to improve health care experiences for veterans, families, caregivers and employees. Catania said the model was designed to help frontline employees bring their ideas to market through HCD.
The program has three levels of investment based on the maturity of the solution:
- Spark: supports brand new concepts and solutions with the goal to develop a functional prototype
- Seed: supports the testing and validation of prototypes through a pilot with the goal of testing prototypes in production at one site or department for a minimum of six months
- Spread: supports validated prototypes looking to spread their innovation to multiple sites or departments with the goal of testing the prototype at two to five new sites for a minimum of six months.
Out of this program, VA developed VEText, to increase access to health care for all veterans. VEText is an interactive mobile solution to remind Veterans of upcoming appointments via text messaging. Following the onset of COVID-19, VEText helped screen approximately 14 million veterans and schedule nearly 250 million vaccination appointments.
“None of us would be in this field if we were not passionate about solving other people's pain in the ways that we felt created the most value,” Catania said.