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Building Trust and Digital Products with Veterans, for Veterans

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  • Published on: April 15, 2021

Our technical experts hail from a wide spectrum of backgrounds. They share a passion for improving Veterans’ access to products and services that Veterans have earned. They also share a commitment to prioritizing IT practices that  puts users, including Veterans and their advocates, Veterans Affairs (VA) business partners and stakeholders, at the center of all we do, while carefully adhering to VA guidelines on security, efficiency, and quality. Known as human-centered design, this innovative method for developing and launching websites, digital tools, and improving databases is a central pillar of the Office of Information and Technology’s mission.

Accordingly, many of the IT experts and designers in our office of the Chief Technology Officer draw from their personal backgrounds to connect with Veterans during the product development process. The diversity of team-members in this unit positively impacts its ability to build new products, tools and platforms that empowers Veterans. The most important outcome:  Veterans interacting with VA via state-of-the-art technologies experience favorable results thanks to seamless, on-demand access to their benefits and services.

We asked several team-members about their work and how their respective backgrounds and life experiences helps inform their ability to connect with their top customers — Veterans — while they are developing new products that serve Veterans and stakeholders.

Wanmei Ou

Wanmei Ou, Ph.D.

White House Presidential Innovation Fellow, specializing in enterprise Data and Analytics

Kaeli Yuen

Kaeli Yuen, M.D.

White House Presidential Innovation Fellow, specializing in modernizing Clinical Healthcare Applications

Stephen Barrs

Stephen Barrs

Software Engineer

Martha Wilkes

Martha Wilkes

Designer and Accessibility Strategist, United States Digital Service

Question:  Is interviewing or surveying Veterans part of your product development process?

Answer: Ms. Wilkes

Veteran-centered design is standard operating procedure for us, every single day. Our product teams are comprised of VA employees, U.S. Digital Service members, Presidential Innovation Fellows and contracting partners, and we all are committed to this way of working. We do research with Veterans to discover and define the problem before we start building. We usability test the solution before we ship, to ensure that it meets Veterans’ needs.

Answer: Dr. Yuen

Feedback from Veterans is a core component in our product development processes. We collect this feedback in many ways, including interviews, interactive sessions with product prototypes, and surveys. Our team takes pride in creating products that are purpose-built for Veterans’ needs, and Veteran feedback is essential to achieving this aim. 

Question: Does your own background (including where you grew up and your education path) inform your work?

Answer: Mr. Barrs

When I was 17 years old, I joined the Army as a 13-Bravo Cannoneer. I was probably the most unlikely person in my high school to join the Army, but I wanted to go to college and that was a path to achieve that goal. There are so many different experiences Veterans have while serving, but one that appears as a common thread is the Camaraderie that develops among and across the crews, squads, and sections. I was part of the 2nd Armored Calvary Regiment, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Battery ( “222 Toujours Pret!”) which consisted of 8 M-198 155mm howitzers and all associated equipment. ...

So when I am thinking of how a [digital or IT] product we create might impact a Veteran, I am thinking about those bonds and how important they are, and those sacrifices and how impactful they are, and how might this product help ease even a tiny part of the burden that Veteran carries with them every day, and how we might create a bond with the Veteran where the VA becomes a trusted member of their crew, willing to truly lay down our lives for those Veterans who so deserve it.  With each release of meaningful software, built with Veterans, for Veterans, I know that further trust in the VA is incrementally established, solidified, and hopefully the lives of Veterans are improved. 

Answer: Ms. Ou

I am a data scientist in training. I obtained a PhD degree in Computer Science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, focusing on machine learning in healthcare data. Prior to joining VA, I was involved in research and software development in the domains of precision medicine, population health, and drug discovery research. In my most recent effort at Merck, a pharmaceutical company, I led a cross-functional team to build an enterprise data and analytics platform. The experience at Merck gave me a lot of ideas how to broaden user adoption of the platform. From the functional perspective, VA users need advanced analytics capabilities. However, there is no single interface which can fulfill all users’ requirements: some require a fully flexible programming interface, and some require no-code/low-code data wrangling and reporting interfaces. Given the diverse requirements, VA’s data and analytics platform, Rockies, provides several fit-for-purpose tools for VA users, such as databricks, Azure Machine Learning, and Trifacta [which VA procured in March 2021]. Most importantly, the implementation of the procured tools must support the FAIR principles, i.e., making data Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable.

Question: How is collaboration with Users (Veterans) and with VA business partners incorporated into your work?

Answer: Ms. Wilkes

One of our recent focus areas is inclusive design, which encourages us to be intentional with our selection of research participants. This includes Veterans with disabilities (vision, hearing, cognition, etc.) and how we must consider their needs from Day One in our design process. That also includes Veterans of varying economic, social, gender, and cultural experiences to ensure that they feel welcomed by the digital tools we create. Lately, I have been collaborating with a social worker and a speech pathologist at the Durham, N.C. VA Medical Center to benefit from their clinical expertise in the design research for a digital product. There is never a dull moment in the office of VA’s Chief Technology Officer; we are always learning something new and improving the products we create and how we build them.

Answer: Mr. Barrs

If you ask any of the Chief Technology Officer division team members who they work for, they will tell you: ‘I work for the Veteran.’ This mindset informs everything we do and every decision we make. This is also balanced with the needs of the VA business partners who, especially in the past, may not be as familiar with the value of user-centered design to inform product design. By working directly with diverse groups of Veterans through an iterative process of usability studies, we’re able to quantify why we make specific design decisions. That data provides the business owners great insight into the needs of the Veterans that may not be immediately apparent, and that fuels an iterative collaboration cycle across all stakeholders

Question: What advice do you have for others who are interested in Technology but may not think that VA or other Federal sector organizations are where they should be?

Answer: Dr. Yuen

I would say to throw your hat in the ring! I have an atypical background for IT and for federal government in that I am an MD and have primarily worked in the private sector prior to my current role; however, my experience at VA has exceeded my expectations and I am glad I took a chance on it. It is exciting and rewarding to be working for an organization with such great scale and potential for impact.

Answer: Ms. Ou

Since VA and other federal sector organizations serve a large proportion of the US population or relates to many foreign countries, the IT projects built here have fundamental impacts on people’s lives and to their relationships with their country. Related to VA, I am impressed with the mission alignment across the large organization, which is second to none throughout my career development.

Our commitment to digital and IT transformation is driven by the daily dedication to collaboration of our workforce, managers, and leaders.

Ready to join us in improving Veterans’ care? Check out all current information and technology career opportunities on DigitalVA. You can also contact VA’s Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer at 512-326-6600, Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.- 5 p.m. CST or by submitting a resume to VACareers@va.gov.

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Page last updated on April 15, 2021

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