Prototype #1: Veterans’ Service Organization (VSO) Finder

This blog post describes one of the prototypes our team built as part of a Harvard Kennedy School of Government course in which we applied human-centered design principles to government processes. Our team is working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on the process veterans endure to appeal disability claim ratings.

What we heard

After retiring from the Navy, Josh started thinking about applying for disability benefits for the shooting pains in his back, bum knee, and hearing loss. As a combat veteran, Josh was no stranger to navigating tricky situations. But when Josh talked to his fellow veterans about the process for applying for disability benefits, they all said, “GET HELP!” Fortunately, there are dozens of veterans’ service organizations (VSO) that assist veterans like Josh to apply for disability benefits. But when Josh went to find a VSO, he was frustrated that they all seemed to have long waiting lists to see a representative. Worse still, Josh had to go in person to the offices of multiple VSOs and talk to the receptionist at each one to learn the time and date of the next available appointment.

Another veteran we spoke to, Andrew, also complained about the inconvenience of booking an appointment with a VSO. Andrew now works for a bank on a trading floor, where he isn’t allowed to use his cell phone. Every time Andrew wants to meet with his VSO, he has to step off the trading floor to call the VSO. Yet another veteran we spoke with, Anthony, complained about the inconsistency of the VSOs he has worked with: some were great, some were not very good. Anthony wished there was some way to know the quality of a VSO in advance.

What we built

We set out to build a prototype that would make it more convenient to schedule an appointment and compare the quality of VSOs. We called our prototype, “VSO Finder.” The prototype allowed veterans to search for a VSO near them by entering their zip code, compare the ratings of VSOs, view possible appointment windows, and book an appointment with a few clicks.

What we learned

Veterans liked the idea of a more convenient way to book appointments with VSOs. But they wanted to be able to filter based on more than just zip code. For example, when we showed Andrew the prototype, he thought some of the VSOs in his search results (e.g., Vietnam Veterans of America) did not cater to younger veterans like him. Veterans also cringed a little when we referred to VSO Finder as “Yelp for VSOs.” Applying for disability benefits is a much more serious decision than booking a dinner table, and veterans wanted the branding and messaging of the prototype to reflect that. 

Paris Martin, Jane Labanowski, Chetan Jhavervi, Rohan Pavuluri, and Josh Welle