Good communication is hard to define, and hard to do—especially for large organizations like the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Part of the problem is that there is no single right answer.
If you ask Nate, an Afghanistan Veteran who filed his disability claim (to receive compensation for injuries or health problems incurred or aggravated as a result of service) through a VA website known as eBenefits before leaving the Marine Corps, good communication is short and immediate. Rarely without his iPhone in his hands, Nate is used to receiving real-time notifications about his online grocery delivery from Amazon and his gate and boarding time from the Delta Airlines app. The communications he receives from the VA are, in comparison, dense and slow.
If you ask Amanda, a Gulf War Veteran and single mother who relies significantly on the income from her claim, she will tell you that good communication is comprehensive and easily accessible. She likes the idea of a centralized VA website, like the one she uses for online banking, that helps her understand the VA claims process and her status in it.
If you ask Simon, a Vietnam Veteran who depends on his wife and large network of Veteran friends for advice and assistance in navigating the VA, he will tell you that good communication is personalized and easy to understand. While he doesn’t mind the occasional text (especially if it’s to remind him of an upcoming appointment), he prefers important information to reach him via letter and phone call.
We know this, because we asked. We are a student team in a Harvard Kennedy School field class working with the VA to understand and improve VA communications with Veterans.
For the past few weeks, we have been getting to know people like Nate, Amanda and Simon to answer the question driving our work with the VA, namely: how do we use communications (and notifications) to improve Veterans’ satisfaction with the disability claims process?
To answer this question, we leveraged our personal and professional network to speak to Veterans. We spoke to classmates, recently retired faculty, and ten Veterans from across Montana (one of us is from the state). We used these initial conversations to fine tune our interview questions and familiarize ourselves with the claims process.
We then reached out to Veterans through official VA channels and Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs)—non-profit organizations created to help Veterans and their families. The Earl W Harvey Chapter and the William Hurley Chapter of the Disabled American Veterans organization gave us an especially warm welcome. In total, we reached over 40 Veterans, 19 through in-person interviews and an additional 10 by telephone, over 5 weeks.
Our final approach focused on the vibrant online community. Reddit, Facebook Groups, and VA forums provided a valuable window into the common challenges and concerns that Veterans experience when filing a claim. Commenters in these discussion groups were supportive of fellow Veterans, but didn’t always have accurate information about the claims process.
From this research emerged three types of Veterans—what designers call “personas”—each with distinct needs and preferences when it comes to communications from the VA. Yes, you guessed it—Nate, Amanda, and Simon.
These three Veteran personas are strikingly distinct. But they share some frustrations—complaints about spam from the VA, lack of personalization, and complexity of content. Using these personas and data from our interviews, we developed the following high-level insights into disability claims communications:
Insights about communications content
Veterans do not feel in control during the claims process.
Veterans are more likely to have a positive experience with the VA when the VA provides clear and reliable expectations.
There is inadequate notification about the movement of a disability claim through the claims process.
Clear justification for a Veteran’s disability rating was often not given to a Veteran.
Insights about communications delivery
Veterans are overwhelmed by promotional content, not by updates to claims status.
The letter is not “dead” and text is not the (only) answer.
Many Veterans (in our interviews almost all) receive information on the progress of their disability claims from non-VA sources, such as VSOs.
Notification infrastructure and resources exist that Veterans are simply unaware of.
However important these insights are, it’s important to note that our interviews with Veterans were intense and personal conversations. We heard their service experiences, physical and psychological wounds, hardships of waiting for a disability claim decision that determines family income and quality of life, frustrations with inaccessible processes, and relief when those processes work well. We are thankful to those who let us into their world and told us their stories.
Our conversations with Veterans gave us rich data, quotes, and insights that we can’t wait to put into action as we enter the next phase of our project: brainstorming, prototyping, and testing solutions to improve VA communications with Veterans.
Isaac Yoder, Daniela Jozic, Dirk Adams, Menaka Narayana, & Raina Davis