Insights on Gravesites

This post is the third in a series produced for a Harvard Kennedy School field class on innovation in government. Our team is working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Cemetery Administration. You can read about our project here and about our experience doing field research and interviewing veterans here.

Armed with packs of sticky notes and Sharpies, we were prepared to synthesize all of our research into what we thought were the most important takeaways. The catch: we weren't allowed to speak.

This technique, called the K-J method, allowed us to digest the deluge of information we collected and efficiently reach a consensus. Our findings came from a wide variety of sources, from a Massachusetts National Cemetery site visit to interviews with fifteen veterans. We also conducted "usability tests," where we watched individuals use the existing gravesite locator tool or competitor sites, and asked them questions along the way.

  Our five-step approach to collecting information about cemeteries.

Our five-step approach to collecting information about cemeteries.

While we learned a lot from visiting the Massachusetts National Cemetery and trying existing gravesite locators, we found it invaluable to interview veterans, family members of veterans, and staff from the VA and the National Cemetery Administration (NCA). We came out of every interview with a unique perspective on the process of discovering, locating, and visiting gravesites at NCA cemeteries.

  A diagram detailing the demographics of our interviewees. We interviewed 28 people, including 13 NCA staff and 15 members of the public. Our external research prioritized veterans and family or friends, which are not mutually exclusive groups.

A diagram detailing the demographics of our interviewees. We interviewed 28 people, including 13 NCA staff and 15 members of the public. Our external research prioritized veterans and family or friends, which are not mutually exclusive groups.

Synthesis

Through our series of interviews, we gained a thorough understanding of what people experience when trying to find a gravesite in an NCA cemetery. We divided the process into five phases: discovering, planning, traveling, navigating to a section, and finally finding the gravesite. We also identified the pain points in each phase that could make the experience frustrating for a visitor or stop the visit altogether.

As we interviewed people about their experiences grieving, honoring, and remembering their loved ones, it was clear that frustration was not the only emotion involved. With that in mind, we also mapped a range of emotions visitors could be feeling onto each phase in the process. For instance, during the planning process, a visitor may be pleased with finding information efficiently. On the other hand, a different visitor may be confused or disappointed if he or she is unable to find a specific gravesite using the gravesite locator.

While each person’s journey is unique, there were many similarities among those we interviewed. We leveraged these similarities to identify four overarching types of visitors:

Discoverer - The discoverer may not have a close personal relationship with someone at the cemetery, but loves ad hoc exploring and learning about veterans' stories.

Returning Visitor - The returning visitor may have visited NCA cemeteries before but is still unfamiliar and recently became ready to visit a cemetery.

First-Time Visitor - The first-time visitor is unfamiliar with the NCA and NCA cemeteries and is visiting a close friend that was recently buried.

Regular Visitor - The regular visitor is very familiar with the NCA after regularly visiting over several years and values personal interactions and connections with cemetery staff.

We gave each type a fictional profile, including a name, face, the typical needs and attitudes of the person during a visit to a cemetery, and other characteristics such as level of vulnerability during the visit.

  The four    personas    that we developed in order to remind us of the needs and attitudes of each type of visitor.

The four personas that we developed in order to remind us of the needs and attitudes of each type of visitor.

After organizing our thoughts into profiles of visitors and the journey they would take when trying to find a gravesite, we identified four key insights from all of our research:

  1. There is a lack of awareness and understanding about NCA and its services.  Many people we interviewed had not heard of the NCA and do not use its tools to find graves. Additionally, some veterans’ negative perceptions of the VA extend to the NCA and its online tools; for instance, they expect to not be able to find helpful information online.
  2. Existing gravesite locator resources are insufficient.  Kiosks that allow people to search for a gravesite and print a map can be out of order, run out of paper, or be difficult to use. Similarly, the online gravesite locator does not always work, it may be hard to use, or visitors do not know it exists. Staff resources are also limited, especially when visitors come outside of cemetery operating hours.
  3. Visitors with maps may still face challenges.  There are environmental challenges to finding a gravesite, e.g. grave markers look very similar, poor weather conditions may make markers difficult to see, or cemetery sections may change over time with new burials. Cemeteries may also simply have an unintuitive layout, which is especially difficult for a first-time visitor to navigate.
  4. Many visitors seek to better memorialize veterans digitally.  Many visitors feel the information available online about a gravesite is disappointing and even disrespectful. They want to learn more information about those buried, such as length of service and honors awarded, while striking a balance with privacy and respect.

Next Steps

Armed with our research, insights and key takeaways, our next steps will be to develop a prototype of a potential solution. Inevitably, this will involve lots of testing, some failures and even more insights. Whatever prototype or solution that we arrive at, however, our goals will ultimately be to:

  • Facilitate discovery and planning
  • Support visitors at all hours
  • Guide visitors reliably to their destination
  • Provide respectful and dignified service

Overall, we see our project as an opportunity to bring all walks of life together to honor the past and provide hope for the future through love and healing. We have a challenging path ahead of us, but we are excited to brainstorm possible solutions, prototype, test the prototypes, and improve what we build! 

-Keith Caton, Athena Kan, Emily Middleton, Devyn Paros, Yuko Tanaka