Veterans Affairs: Mentorship Framework
A design research investigation on how to encourage new veterans to take advantage of the VA services available to them.
Sowmya Iyer | Manako Tamura | Jingting He | Sebastian Harmsen | Louis Elwood-Leach
MFA Products of Design, School of Visual Arts
Guidance from Lawrence Abramson
As part of SVA Products of Design’s partnership with Veterans Affairs and held through the Design Research and Integration class taught by IDEO’s Lawrence Abrahamson, we formed a team of 6 designers consisting of Sowmya Iyer, Manako Tamura, Jingting He, Sebastian Harmsen, Louis Elwood Leach, and myself to research how to help engage new veterans- encouraging them to take advantage of the services available to them.
How to engage new veterans- encouraging them to take advantage of the VA services available to them?
Building on the findings of over 20 first-person interviews with VA staff and discharged veterans, the group surfaced three principal insights: The first is that there is an opportunity to facilitate better communication to veterans — veteran-to-veteran. We learned that information around the transition to civilian life, and around the available veteran services is perceived better when it comes straight from a veteran. Veteran-to-veteran creates a much stronger bond, and a ‘young veteran’ is more likely to pay attention and communicate interest when the information comes directly from the source.
The second insight centered around the perception of the quality of services at the VA. We found a lot of young veterans have a bad perception of the VA due to 'bad media', when in actuality, we heard time and time again that the VA offers excellent services.
The third insight was around the value of helping veterans become more aware of their opportunities and values. A recently-discharged veteran may not be aware of their potential. Veterans have been put through so much in the military, and we felt that if they had some instructive (and constructive) guidance, they could achieve more.
"Vets take care of Vets"
Finally, the group learned that it would be incredibly valuable to create design interventions that facilitated connections within the veteran community. We met veterans who have a sense of a larger mission, and really do want to help the veteran community. We believe that design could play a key role here.
Transitions is a representation of the emotional journey of a veteran—through the various phases of military life, transitioning, and then stepping into civilian life. Through our research, we came to understand that there are fundamental rhythms, expectations, and feelings that become completely disconnected once a veteran enters civilian life. For instance, their life and routine has a structure and discipline during military life. But once they step into civilian shoes, their routine can become ‘mundane’ and, as a consequence, veterans can find it difficult to cope with this new lifestyle.
Conversely, there are a couple of key feelings that get carried over—remaining consistent through the transition to civilian life: a sense of community, and a ‘soldier identity’ for example. We believe it is critical to understand these emotional dynamics as there can be internal conflict at various stages of transition.
We ultimately proposed a user journey that is simple and logical, and that ladders up in level of engagement:
1. Conduct outreach to interest new veterans in getting involved in the program
2. Create a sign up flow over a digital platform
3. Connect sympathetic, like-minded individuals based on their profiles
4. Facilitate a one-to-one meet-up, and equip the meetings with pertinent and supportive printed information
The external organization works in close concert with the VA in order to insure that the services are correctly represented, and that any information exchanged between new and “experienced” veterans would be accurate and up-to-date. A simple toolkit of essential and useful information would be created and available through sharing but not through direct mail, or by simply hoping that someone might ‘pick up a pamphlet’. The whole point is that essential services information would be passed in a more meaningful and immediate way: In person, one-on-one.”
The key point - essential service information isn't sent through direct mail. Rather, it is passed in a meaningful and immediate way:
In person, one-on-one.
One of the most important decisions we made was to leverage existing external veteran organizations—rather than trying to invent one. After researching a wide array of organizations, the group settled on “The Mission Continues”—an organization that already appeals to younger veterans. Since our goal is to tap into a younger crowd of veterans, we narrowed our focus and thought it would make a lot of sense to build from their base. In fact, the Mission Continues declared purpose on their website entirely aligns with our earlier research: ‘The Mission Continues empowers veterans who are adjusting to life at home to find purpose through community impact.’”
We further mocked-up The Mission Continues website with the addition of the "Mentorship" item in the top navigation bar and mapped out the entire user flow. We kept the user experience and graphic look-and-feel consistent with the Mission Continues site, building off of their existing style and aesthetic. This would insure a seamless fit between their brand and and the member base. Here, we decided not to create a conspicuous new brand extension; we wanted the new offerings to be completely inconspicuous and look entirely native to the existing brand experience.
We know the VA is not permitted to directly advertise to the public.
Further—and quite significant— The Mission Continues already enjoys significant corporate sponsorship. Since our proposal would require public advertising media and collateral support, having a modest funding stream already built in would reduce friction of getting initiatives of the ground. Also, we thought it would be prudent to align and leverage the brands throughout the user journey that are already tied to and supportive of The Mission Continues. As designers, we felt that working with pre-aligned organizations would have the highest likelihood of success.
Our idea is to leverage supporting brand partnerships to reach our audience, raise awareness, and promote participation.
Here is how The Mission Continues mentorship program would work—from two different perspectives: The experienced veteran; and the recently-discharged veteran.
The first step is reaching out to experienced veterans, encouraging them to join a mentorship program. We felt that this has a high likelihood of success, because our research revealed that every day, the VA interacts with amazing veterans who want to give back to the community. This initial outreach creates a perfect moment for the VA to identify those individuals, and to encourage them to become mentors.
Here, The Mission Continues Mentorship business cards could be handed out by VA personnel—by doctors, nurses, front desk personnel or really anyone at the VA. Additionally, mentorship flyers would be located throughout the VA to encourage signup.
Next is attracting recent veterans to sign up for the mentorship program.
This is the moment where the existing partnerships with the Mission Continues comes into great effect.
Disney is an existing sponsor, for example, so when a veteran's movie ticket discount is exercised, a flyer can be given out to the vet along with their ticket. Equinox is a also sponsor, and gyms are a popular place to find veterans. So this is also a great moment to reach out.
Finally, Southwest Airlines is already a primary sponsor for the Mission Continues, so plane tickets and digital boarding passes—which already identify military personnel—could have mentorship messaging on them.
Next, interested potential mentors go to the website platform where they create a profile, identify the areas where they feel most comfortable providing advisement, and identify the gender preference of a mentee. Note - although our research indicates that women prefer to not be 'divided into another group', we are aware of the high percentage of Military Sexual Trauma, and feel this should be an option in case of preference.
When new veterans arrive at the site, they similarly identify the areas that they'd like to get some help and information about. Using matching algorithms, the mentorship platform puts together a tailored toolkit made up of appropriate information packets—and sends it to the mentor, along with notifying them of their match!
The most difficult barrier for the VA to engaging new veterans is that veterans aren’t even aware of their right to services. Mentoring is a great way to get this information across, of course, but it’s also a tried-and-true way of building trusted friendships that can provide all kinds of support.
Partnering with a non-governmental organization such as The Mission Continues provides a short runway to corporate sponsorship and media advertising, and while these advertisements mostly target recently discharged veterans, the VA can leverage them to reach out to experienced veterans who already use their services. By asking these veterans to become mentors, the program essentially invites them to be ambassadors for the VA.
Following the IDEO research methodology of Human Centered Design, this project relied heavily on user interviews, followed by secondary research. In order to download and synthesize all the interview findings together, we used lots and lots of post-it notes. We broke into teams of 3 to perform interviews, therefore it was particularly important to come together regularly to discuss and document findings. We were able to cluster findings to pull out themes and key insights which ultimately, created the building blocks of our design concept.