Creating solutions at the Department of Veterans Affairs

Summary

With optimization for mobile navigation and ease of use in mind, our experienced developers build mobile-ready applications for all Department of Veterans Affairs offerings. Leveraging information gathered through their research studies, our teams design and build applications from the ground up that will have pleasing and functional experiences, making sure to apply VA’s digital modernization principle that every service will be equally available in desktop and mobile environments.

Insights

The Veteran Services Applications (VSA) program provides veterans with a central point for finding out information about their VA benefits. By using Agile product-driven processes, modern development methods and technologies (e.g., continuous build/integration, daily production deployments, DevOps, Lean principles) and the U.S. Digital Services (USDS) Playbook, GCIO teams build ReactJS/Ruby on Rails applications for the VA.gov ecosystem.

GCIO and our VA partners have worked to create a veteran-centric and outcome-focused approach that has significantly improved veterans’ lives by quickly bringing to market new and improved products that are part of the VA.gov experience.

Our solution

GCIO combines Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), Scrum, and Lean methodologies and a metrics-driven approach to organize, coordinate and run our product teams. GCIO uses its experience running large-scale SAFe implementations and smaller-scale Scrum development efforts to integrate with and create a solution for a medium sized program like VSA. By combining the concepts and methods from SAFe that focus on alignment of methods and activities but still encouraging self-organizing teams for more efficient and faster delivery, we have implemented an agile process that merges the advantages of both methods.

Our team uses a human-centered design (HCD) process to determine what is valuable to customers when we create new applications or make updates to existing applications. When supporting a new initiative or product, our teams heavily apply HCD up front; when making updates to existing applications, based on analytics data or a desire by stakeholders to add additional value, we apply a lighter version of our HCD approach.

This process includes repeatable discovery with standardized research plans, research outcomes, design templates, roadmaps, engineering plans and an iterative approach to creating a minimum viable product (MVP). Our rigorous Discovery Sprints incorporate interviews with business owners, stakeholders, technical advisors and end users to clearly scope work, ensure we build what the users want, and avoid major rework by reducing technical/design risk up front. This includes remote and in-person user research sessions ranging from baseline interviews to prototype testing. Following strict standards, we run design/prototype user testing using Formation, U.S. Web Design Standards (USWDS), and the USDS Playbook.

A key concept to human-centered design is building user interfaces that are simple, intuitive, easy to navigate and driven by research-backed design and analytics. GCIO used web statistics, site navigation metrics and analytics as inputs for designing new website/applications. Our engineers review AWS hosting statistics to plan for infrastructure needs. Google Analytics gathers health metrics as part of our development process. By using Google analytics, we have shown migrated applications have greater adoption by veterans when HCD is applied.

Results

By heavily incorporating user/stakeholder research, discovery, interviews, focusing on outcomes and using user-based metrics as a guide, GCIO teams ensure we build the right product for right users. Our human-centered design, engineering and product teams encompass the full lifecycle of veteran-facing applications from discovery through production support.

As we roll out more capabilities for claims processing, VA metrics data has shown an almost 500% increase in claim submissions in the last year and a significantly lower (50% or more) amount of development items (additional work to resolve claims) over other claims submission sources.