Providing a fully digital, Veteran-centric experience for VA.gov

abstract technology lines
abstract technology lines
The background

The VA provides Veterans with a myriad of critical and often lifesaving services and benefits. However, many of the 10+ million monthly visitors to VA’s digital environment had frustrating encounters with a complicated maze of websites, forms, logins, brands, and outdated tools. And due to VA’s stove-piped organization, the environment comprised many legacy systems with varied languages and environments.

To address issues and deliver a modernized digital experience, VA’s Office of Information & Technology (OIT) built Vets.gov. This site enabled Veterans to learn about, apply for, and manage their VA benefits. In building Vets.gov, VA also established a product development platform to build future efforts and consolidate hundreds of VA websites (including Vets.gov) under one VA.gov site. Even with the new VA.gov site, a significant work remained for VA to achieve its goal of becoming the first federal agency to deliver a digital experience on par with the private sector.

The challenge

Digital access to services VA provides has proven paramount for Veterans and their loved ones, even more so with the rise of Covid-19. Veterans, caregivers, service members, VSOs, and VA’s other users need an online experience on par with the private sector companies with whom they interact daily. VA.gov's portfolio of web-based sites and tools must provide an authenticated, consistent, intuitive, unified, and centralized Veteran experience that allows easy access to the myriad of digital services available from VHA, VBA, and NCA, including submitting claims, checking claims statuses, and obtaining vital information about the VA and relevant topics (e.g., COVID-19).

To this end, VA sought GovCIO's support in continuing the creation, development, and maintenance of Veteran-facing Services Applications (VSA) within VA.gov to:

  • Dramatically upgrade numerous of its user-facing digital tools.
  • Continue integrating disparate content, tools, and brands into one experience.
  • Drive a mobile-friendly format besides iOS and Android native mobile applications that offer a similar experience.
  • Create plain language action-oriented content.
  • Deliver customer-first design and content.
  • Eliminate duplication and refocus resources on providing a customized digital experience for each user. 
Our solution

To provide this experience, GovCIO has brought new ways of working to VSA, enlisting Silicon Valley talent and U.S. Digital Services Playbook best practices to approach this complex program. Our Agile, user-centered delivery process aligns teams around business capabilities, maintains team efficiency, and focuses on incremental delivery via Sprints and Agile events while concentrating on the customer experience. Within this delivery process, GovCIO integrates:

  • Human-Centered Design (HCD): We understand the needs and challenges of Veterans and their families, caregivers, and representatives and iteratively design and deliver solutions that eliminate their pain points. We amplify the voice of the Veteran through research, social media analysis, and frequent engagement.
  • Product Oriented Development: We structure teams around product missions driven by the outcomes VHA, VBA, and NCA want for Veterans and their families. Based on user research, teams collaborate with product owners to determine what tooling and iterations most likely to impact the product mission.
  • Holistic “Systems Thinking” View: GovCIO views new features within the larger VA.gov context to better understand the complete user experience and how Veterans interact with the VA digital ecosystem. We use weekly meetings with other vendors working on related solutions to ensure all new VA.gov functionality, whether built by our team or others, complements the holistic experience.
  • Commercial Sector Best Practices: We apply best practices, such as DevSecOps, automated tools, machine-learning, and API-driven architecture, contextualized for VA's ecosystem, to increase development velocity and website reliability, security, and user satisfaction.

As a result, we rapidly release new services to Veterans without affecting reliability, user experience, or risk to users. We deliver high-quality, secure services at a pace comparable to the commercial sector.

Our impact

GovCIO’s Veteran-centric and outcome-focused approach has improved Veterans’ lives by quickly bringing to market new and improved products for the VA.gov experience. By incorporating HCD, focusing on outcomes, and using user-based metrics as a guide, our teams have ensured we build the right product for the right users. Example successful efforts we have supported include: 

  • VAMC Migration: Our team worked with all VA Hospital Centers (~140 hospitals) to redesign and migrate over 1000+ page implementations to the new Drupal 8 platform, reducing site design complexity and the number of pages while providing easier access to information, site usage, and navigation for Veterans. This allows Veterans to have a consistent experience when accessing different hospital locations. GovCIO not only restructured the user flow and information architecture to make websites more Veteran-focused but also rewrote/updated content using plain language to make it more readily accessible to Veterans.
  • eBenefits. GovCIO migrated one of the largest VA applications, eBenefits, from an older technology stack and deployment infrastructure to a modern development and Cloud infrastructure. Part of the migration relied on keeping previous capabilities available to Veterans at or above the quality and fidelity of the previous stack. GovCIO added new features and improved existing ones, incorporating HCD principles and a lightweight Agile process to make improvements. Migrating the direct deposit capability greatly improved ease of use and accessibility, encouraging Veterans to use direct deposit over paper checks. This made things easier for Veterans and provided cost-savings for the VA as paper checks contribute to fraud and are more error-prone.

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