Testing…Testing…1, 2, 3

This post is the fourth 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 (VA) and the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) to improve the process of discovering, locating and visiting graves in NCA cemeteries.

It’s easy to point out something wrong with a government service. Developing solutions is a harder task. Armed with our key insights based on our field research and interviews, however, our team was ready to move beyond simply asking how we could improve the process of discovering, locating and visiting gravesites in NCA Cemeteries.

We were brimming with ideas and were excited to test them.

First, we had a stop to make. We traveled to Washington, D.C., last week to present our work to executives at the NCA and to co-work with our contacts in the NCA and the U.S. Digital Service. In between official activities, we got to tour the Digital Service’s headquarters and raid the Eisenhower Executive Office Building's gift shop (they were having their 50% off spring sale!).

Visiting USDS headquarters (missing: Keith Caton)

Visiting USDS headquarters (missing: Keith Caton)

During our first stop at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, we presented our insights to NCA executives and got their feedback. The meeting made our work and its potential impact more tangible than ever. We also presented three prototype ideas, which we later workshopped with our main NCA contact and members of the US Digital Services team who are overhauling the VA’s website (Vets.gov). Each prototype idea targets a unique but related step in the process of visiting an NCA cemetery.

1. Mobile-Friendly Visitor Site

Our first prototype idea is a mobile-friendly site that provides grave locations and cemetery visitor information. It will aid with pre-visit research, at-cemetery navigation, and discovery of gravesites.

Pre-visit research functionality would include a search tool to find a specific veteran. The search tool could feature auto-suggestion of cemetery names and a separate advanced search function. We could also include screens that offer tips and instructions on getting to the specific cemetery as well as maps to navigate to both the cemetery and the grave.

To help with at-cemetery navigation, we will incorporate features such as section-specific maps and an option to contact staff at the cemetery. We could also offer options to read about each cemetery's history, take a guided tour via phone, and learn more about notable burials to support visitors who want to explore the cemetery. A more complex but critical improvement would be incorporating a GPS-enabled locator using Google Maps to route visitors to a grave.

2. Modifications to the Kiosk Map

Moving beyond the online search process, our next prototype focuses on the in-person journey at the cemetery and improving kiosks. Kiosks are available at most but not all of the cemeteries. They allow people to look up the names of those buried at the cemetery (similar to the online tool) and print maps of the cemetery for visitors to take with them.

Examples of NCA cemetery maps which vary in readability. (Left) Florida National Cemetery, (right) Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minnesota.

Examples of NCA cemetery maps which vary in readability. (Left) Florida National Cemetery, (right) Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minnesota.

Even small modifications to the kiosk and maps may help. The maps, for example, vary widely in readability. The NCA could create standards to improve the readability and usefulness of maps, add QR codes that link to the mobile-friendly visitor site, or add a link to the mobile-friendly visitor site to existing kiosks’ welcome screens.

More ambitious goals include kiosks that are easier to maintain or update, and wi-fi enabled kiosks (such as LinkNYC adopted in New York City) in each section, rather than just at the visitor center.

3. Google "Rich Snippets"

Rich snippets are the bits of information that Google pushes to the top when you search for things like the weather, a recipe or a word definition. Many people we interviewed start their online searches with Google. These snippets could be used to enable visitors to find the information they need quickly and easily, and direct them to other helpful resources.

This would aid in the pre-visit research and on-site navigation stages. The NCA could further expand this idea by partnering with Google to ensure the information is up-to-date and as precise as possible.

Next Steps

After discussing with the VA, we've decided to pursue prototype #1, the mobile-friendly visitor site, in greater detail. The USDS has also mentioned a desire to pursue the other prototypes as well, but the first prototype will be our focus. This next week, we will rapidly test and refine our prototype with the following questions in mind:

  1. Is the prototype helpful? Does it provide information that people need?
  2. Is the information people need most readily available? Does the sequencing of the information make sense?
  3. Is the prototype intuitive and easy to navigate?
  4. Is the process stressful for people?

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