The U.S. Digital Service and the Department of Veterans Affairs launched an effort in March 2018 to redesign and streamline the VA.gov site. They didn’t change much actual content, but instead reorganized and reframed web pages to make it easier for veterans to find the information they needed.
The project was completed in November 2018, and customer satisfaction with the altered web pages increased over 20 points in the months that followed.
“The satisfaction went from a 55 to a 67 essentially overnight by providing customization, plain language, one version of any of the content or one version of the tool people were trying to get to, and overall people were much, much happier,” Chris Johnston, product manager of digital service at VA, told Federal Times.
According to Marcy Jacobs, executive director of digital service at VA, that increased satisfaction also led to more veterans using online services, which both makes their lives easier and saves the agency money.
“Aggregating that information and making it easier for people to find without changing the healthcare application — years ago we redesigned the healthcare application but we didn’t do that on this launch, we just put it front and center on the homepage — that increased the traffic to the healthcare application by 52 percent,” Jacobs told Federal Times.
Use of online forms for education benefits jumped by nine percent.
“In the private sector even just nine percent, let alone 50 percent increase overnight in any transaction you were trying to improve, would be monumental,” said Johnston.
The project organized the many benefits veterans receive into eight content areas — healthcare, disability, education and training, careers and employment, pension, housing assistance, life insurance, and burials and memorials — plus a records section that helps vets find out what information the agency has on them.
The site also gave users the ability to change their address information online, which could previously only be done over the phone.
“You take people out of the call center lines, people who don’t want to call somebody but want to go just update their address online, which they previously couldn’t do but now they can do. That’s been the No. 2 called about thing. Maybe that’s a short call and it only costs $8, maybe, but those were people that were getting out of that line, and to do it online, self-service is pennies,” said Jacobs.
“You’re kind of the expert on where you live, so we should show you where we think you live and, if that’s wrong, let you update it. And not update it in the 87 places — not exaggerating — that it lives, but let you update it once, and then we take care of propagating that to all the other places.”
According to Jacobs, the agency wastes a lot of money on unopened mail, approximately 40 percent of which is sent to the wrong address. Making it easier for someone to update their address themselves may significantly cut into that number.
Compared to most government software projects, the redesign of VA.gov was relatively fast — approximately eight months — and relied on a team of about 40 to 50 people at its largest, a small number compared to the 7,702 employees in the VA office of information technology.
The project in total updated 200 to 300 of the site’s approximately 2,000 web pages, but that narrow focus was the key to its success.
“I think that’s something that a lot of agencies struggle with, is that they try to do everything at once, they try to do too much at once. And I think that they end up going a mile wide and an inch deep, and they end up delivering nothing,” said Jacobs.
“They write down requirements for two years, they try to write down every possible permutation, and then they try to do everything.”
According to Johnston, part of the problem is that the government’s mentality about building stuff is better suited for physical objects than software.
“The government has a way of buying and building stuff. If you’re going to build a battleship, you’re going to make blueprints for it, you’re going to hire somebody to do that, and then you’re going to hire somebody to build the battleship … and eight years later you’re going to have a battleship,” said Johnston. “Software is not the same. Software is almost a living thing that needs constant attention.”
According to Jacobs, USDS is one of the few government organizations taking such an approach to software, but their work is applicable across nearly all government agencies.
“We’re kind of the only ones building the forms and building the functionality. But it certainly doesn’t need to be that way, and we don’t want to be the bottleneck.”
The team is now planning to get to work on other pages of the website, improving the user portal and potentially creating a system that pre-fills forms for service members transitioning into veteran life.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.