Making health care and benefits more accessible
More than 10 million Veterans and their caregivers visit 144 VA’s medical facilities’ websites every month. They come to make appointments, refill prescriptions, order hearing aid batteries, and more. But many can’t find what they need because information is organized according to VA’s internal structure, not Veterans’ needs. It should be easier for Veterans to access their health care and benefits.
We partnered with the VA Office of Information Technology’s Digital Experience Product Office (DEPO), Veterans Health Administration (VHA) Digital Media, Agile Six, and CivicActions on a nine-month pilot. We consolidated top VA health services under just one website (va.gov), retired websites that had competing or outdated information, streamlined 300+ webpages, and developed a new website for one of VA’s largest facilities, VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.
Delivering a better experience now and in the future
This foundational work, which launched on January 29, 2020 at va.gov/pittsburgh-health-care, will guide VA’s multi-year product roadmap to help deliver a better experience for Veterans, family members, and caregivers across VA’s medical facilities’ websites and 1,200 health care facilities.
The new site is responsive, faster, more reliable, and flexible. It employs a modern tech stack and a custom Drupal content management system (CMS). The CMS supports a new information architecture (IA) that reflects the way Veterans search for information so they can find what they need more quickly.
Prioritizing user needs
As with any human-centered design project, we put users at the center of our work and began with research to understand their needs. DEPO surveyed more than 800 Veterans, asking them to complete 10 key tasks using the newly proposed IA. We used their results to organize content and make design prototypes. As an example, one significant finding was that Veterans identify with VA through their local or regional medical or office site. So we used that as a key principle to guide our organization.
We regularly iterated on and improved the content and design by observing and listening to 76 Veterans, family members, caregivers, and patient advocates as they used the prototypes and described their experiences:
“I’d be shocked if this were a VA page. It looks like a modern website. I’m no designer, but the whitespace here helps me find things quicker,” said one Veteran.
Prioritizing Veterans and considering their needs helped us deliver tools and systems to support VA content editors too. The CMS we built also provides guidelines for creating and publishing content so that it’s more clear and consistent across VA websites.
“Serving Veterans is our priority. We want to sort out the distinctions on our end to get basic information intuitively on the websites so that VA personnel can use their time to support Veterans on more pressing health concerns,” said a Pittsburgh staff member.
When we began rewriting and redesigning content, we prioritized updates that would address the most significant pain points identified during our research. For example, navigation challenges caused stress and frustration, so we decluttered the design and reorganized content according to what Veterans need most.
“Think about how people are accessing this information when they’re on their mobile devices and are in waiting rooms, trying to find information quickly–and it could be an emergency. This version is good for that. I’m not squinting and having to zoom in and out for everything, especially if I’m stressed,” said one Veteran using a prototype with reorganized content.
During research, one Veteran offered this organization of site content.
Making information clear with plain language
As we got further into content auditing, consolidation, and rewriting for the VA Pittsburgh site, we doubled down on plain language practices. We wanted to make all of the information we published more consistent, conversational, clear, helpful, and empathetic. We conducted three rounds of paraphrase testing with 28 Veterans. The ultimate goal was to draft content that would better prepare Veterans for their medical visits. Overall, we reduced the total word count and site pages by 87 percent.
“I like that it’s pretty simple. I can find things by scrolling rather than clicking on a million tabs,” said one Veteran.
As we cut words in some places, we added words in others. We learned that to help Veterans find information quickly, we needed to write in the second person. So, instead of, “The VA provides suicide prevention services,” we used “If you are a Veteran in crisis or concerned about one, connect with qualified responders for confidential help.”
“I like that it’s very straight to the point—and I like that I can see all health services,” said one Veteran.
With help from our partners at VA Office of Information Technology’s Digital Experience Product Office (DEPO), Veterans Health Administration (VHA) Digital Media, CivicActions, and Agile 6, we were able to better understand the people we were designing for. By focusing on the experience of Veterans, we helped make it easier—as it should be—for them to access health care and benefits through va.gov.