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 has had the honor of working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on the process veterans endure to appeal disability claim ratings.
What we heard
Paper and snail mail are still the primary way in which many veterans interact with the VA. Since the majority of veterans going through their appeals process are over the age of 40, most of the VA’s ‘customers’ are not digital natives. We heard over and over again in our interviews that the letters from the VA were hard to understand. Ricky, a retired veteran who is now a lawyer himself, observed, “I’m trained to read legal documents, and even I have trouble making heads or tails out of the gobbledygook in these letters.” We learned that there is an effort already underway at the VA Center for Innovation to redesign the letters, so we decided to focus our efforts on another form of written communication, the forms veterans have to complete to file their appeal. We started with Form 9, which is the form veterans complete to start their appeal.
What we built
We made the following changes to Form 9:
Made the numbers clearer and larger, so veterans could be confident they were completing all the steps
Inserted short instructions next to each step, rather than referring to a long set of instructions at the end
Inserted guided number spaces that indicated to a veteran how many digits should be in the numerical fields. For example, 10 slots for a phone number.
Used white space to more clearly highlight important information
What we learned
Small changes can make a big difference. While none of these tweaks on their own seemed groundbreaking, one of the veterans remarked, “It’s like bumper bowling! I know I’m on the right path.” We were particularly happy that the use of white space led one veteran to notice important information about how the type of hearing they chose might add a significant delay to the issuance of their decision. On the downside, veterans noted that they would still probably ask a veterans service organization for help while filling out the form.
Paris Martin, Jane Labanowski, Chetan Jhavervi, Rohan Pavuluri, and Josh Welle