Designing with Veterans: a Mad*Pow Hackathon

“First, do no harm.”

I like to think of human-centered design as a kind of magic wand that transforms whatever it touches. I had an opportunity to witness — and perform — some of that magic at #hacktheforms, an event organized by the VA Center for Innovation and held simultaneously in Boston and Atlanta on May 7th.

The Boston gathering was held here at Mad*Pow, and we had a full house: ~15 UX designers, several Mad*Pow staffers, John Dadamo, Daniel Peaceman, and Saur Bhatnagar from the Boston VA, and Andrea Ippolito, VACI’s Innovators Network Lead. After a brief download of information and a rollicking Q&A session, we split into three teams and got down to work.

A little background
All Veterans have access to a variety of benefits through the VA system, including mental health support (benefits and healthcare), low-interest mortgages, and education/training. But those with service-connected PTSD are entitled to additional benefits. To get this additional level of benefits, Veterans must provide a verifiable “service connection.” In other words, Veterans need to prove that their PTSD is directly related to their military service or a personal assault that took place during their service.
And that’s where #hacktheforms comes in. Its mission is “to bring designers and mental health experts together to improve the experience for Veterans and their families when navigating VA forms.”
Enter Mad*Pow. We jump at the chance to participate in initiatives like this.

The challenge
“The form made me feel like I was in a George Orwell novel.” - Veteran, Montana

Our job was to redesign the two forms Vets have to fill out in order to get care for PTSD: VA Form 21-0781 and VA Form 21-0781a

We decided that the best way to improve the forms was to define the user needs, review the existing content, and then pick out some quick wins.

Step 1: Define user needs
With only eight hours to complete the entire redesign, we didn’t have much time to devote to user research. But we did have access to the VACI’s report, “Veteran Access to Mental Health Services,” as well as insights from Saur, John, and Daniel, who work with Veterans here in Boston. We were also fortunate to have Tony Saffier, a Veteran and entrepreneur, moving from group to group, offering his thoughts. In addition, Shannon Duff and Shannon Stump, who work at the Veterans Benefits Association (VBA) Boston, provided insights regarding the current benefits process.

Our forms had to meet the needs of two sets of users: Veterans and the VA. Veterans need forms that are simple, empathetic, and easy to complete. Vets are also very concerned about privacy. The VA needs forms that contain all the information required to prove a service connection or to allow them to research and confirm such a connection. With this information in hand, we were ready to start reviewing the forms as they exist now, keeping an eye out for how the forms meet (or fail to meet) these needs.

Step 2: Review existing content
Since we only had four pages to review, we banged this out in a matter of minutes. We quickly identified the following issues with the forms:
  1. They were cold, impersonal, and felt like an interrogation.
    The form is all about data — where, when, and who was injured or killed — and it ends with a warning about making fraudulent claims. Vets feel as if they’re being asked to “prove” something.
  2. They asked for more than the minimum required data.
    Only one service-connected incident is required to make a claim, but the form has space for two. Additionally, this form is not required for any vet who served a hostile tour. Yet, they’re not informed of this.
  3. They were dense and cluttered.
    The form is visually oppressive. It has huge chunks of small type, including massive amounts of legalese. This decreases legibility and understandability, especially for vets with brain injuries.
  4. They didn’t set expectations about “next steps.”
    Vets are told that their claims will be verified, but not how long that will take, or how long it will be until they can start receiving services once the verification is complete.
Step 3: Identify quick wins
Given the short amount of time, we focused our redesign on “quick wins,” or fixes that take little time but make a huge amount of impact. It was interesting to see the similarities in the participants’ design recommendations. 

The results?
As a content person, it’s always a privilege to work with a roomful of talented designers, and #hacktheforms was no exception. You can use the links above to see the forms “before” their transformation. Then check out our new designs below. (VA Service form 1, VA Service form 2, VA Service form 3




Combine the two forms into one. There’s no need to ask Veterans to fill out five pages of information if we can capture the data we need on one two-page form.



Prevent unnecessary claim submissions. Any Veteran who serves what’s called a “hostile tour” or sees any kind of combat can skip the forms altogether. And apparently, that accounts for 90% of vets. So, if 9 out of 10 vets don’t need to fill out the form, why not tell them that up front?



Lighten the “respondent burden.” One verifiable, service-connected “stressful incident” is all a vet needs to support a PTSD claim. We removed the need for vets to provide details for more than a single incident, to save them both time and unnecessary trauma.



Humanize the experience. All three teams brought warmth, compassion, and respect to the form by including a welcoming greeting that acknowledged vets’ service, destigmatized their PTSD, and commended them for seeking help. In my group, we collected information about the vet on the first page and information about the incident on the second, to evoke a sense of distance between the two.



Keep it simple. We shortened the form’s name, trimmed the legal verbiage from ¼ of a page to three sentences, and translated “Government-speak” into plain language.



Make it pretty. We transformed an ugly form into a wonderland of white space and cool icons.



Emphasize privacy. Trust is a big issue for vets. They need to know that their personal information is private and secure, and that they won’t be penalized for admitting that they need help.



If you’re interested in participating in future redesign or hackathon events, here in Boston or in other cities, contact Andrea Ippolito ([email protected]). VACI would love to work with you!


By: Dana Ortegón

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