“We used a co-design approach… During my time at VA, we applied and taught design practices through the Veterans Health and Veterans Benefit administrations alongside the dedicated civil servants working to support Veterans.”
When Sarah arrived at Veterans Affairs as a White House Presidential Fellow in 2014, she and her team knew that veterans tended to be younger and more diverse—and also include a larger percentage of women—than past generations of veterans. The new veterans also interacted differently with VA and had different needs from the Vietnam-era veterans who continue to make up a large contingent of VA’s customers.
Sarah knew the team had to get ahead, and stay ahead, of that trend.
“We used a co-design approach,” she says. “During my time at VA, we applied and taught design practices through the Veterans Health and Veterans Benefit administrations alongside the dedicated civil servants working to support Veterans.”
During the second half of her fellowship, Sarah continued her work as she helped stand up the Veterans Experience Office and led VA’s Insight & Design Team.
Working in sprints and using human-centered design-based research, Sarah and her team talked with more than 300 veterans—as well as VA employees—from across the country to establish what their experiences had been, interacting with VA, from start to finish. From there, the team designed journey maps and personas that described veterans’ needs throughout their lives.
The team brought those insights back to senior leaders in a visually engaging way, and soon, saw an increase in empathy toward veterans among VA leaders. Their work was creating thought change, and Sarah and her team could hear it in the way people at VA talked about their work: “Has anyone asked the veterans what they want?” became a common refrain.
Using the journey maps and personas, the team created a Welcome Kit to help veterans understand what VA offers and how to access services; rewrote onboarding letters and documentation in plain English; supported the modernization of VA’s contact centers; designed a plan for faster hiring at HR; and helped orchestrate a unified patient experience framework at the Veterans Health Administration.
VA continues to use the tools Sarah’s team created during that time, and some of the designers continue to work on patient experience, and driving human-centered design approaches through the organization.
“The Welcome Kits can help guide you,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told veterans in January 2019. “Whether it’s time to go to school, to get a job, to buy a house…or make plans for your own care as you
At the end of Sarah’s tenure at VA, the government named her the first chief design officer in a cabinet-level administration.