Design Thinking and DevOps Combine for Better Customer Experience
How citizens interact with government websites tells you much about how to improve – as long as you’re paying attention, said Aaron Wieczorek, digital services expert with U.S. Digital Services’ team at the Department of Veteran Affairs.
“At VA we will literally sit down with veterans, watch them work with the website and apply for benefits,” he said. The aim is to make sure the experience is what users want and expect he said, not “what we think they want.”
Taking copious notes on their observations, the team then sets to work on programming improvements that can be quickly put to the test. “Maybe some of the buttons were confusing or some of the way things work is confusing – so we immediately start reworking,” Wieczorek explained.
Applying a modern agile development approach means digital services can immediately put those tweaks to the test in their development environment. “If it works there, good. Then it moves to staging. If that’s acceptable, it deploys into production,” Wieczorek said.
That process can happen in days. Vets.gov deploys software updates into production 40 times per month Wieczorek said, and agency wide to all kinds of environments 600 times per month.
Case in point: Vets.gov’s digital Form 1010 EZ, which allows users to apply for VA healthcare online.
“We spent hundreds of hours watching veterans, and in end we were able to totally revamp everything,” Wieczorek said. “It’s actually so easy now, you can do it all on your phone.” More than 330,000 veterans have applied that way since the digital form was introduced. “I think that’s how you scale things.”
Of course, one problem remains: Vets.gov is essentially a veteran-friendly alternative site to VA.gov, which may not be obvious to search engines or veterans looking for the best way in the door. Search Google for “VA 1010ez” and the old, mobile-unfriendly PDF form still shows as the top result. The new mobile-friendly application? It’s the third choice.
At the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, developers take a similar approach, but focus hard on balancing speed, quality and design for maximum results. “We believe that requirements and needs should be seen like a carton of milk: The longer they sit around, the worse they get,” said Corry Robb product design lead in the Office of GEOINT Services at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. “We try to handle that need as quickly as we can and deliver that minimally viable product to the user’s hands as fast as we can.”
DevOps techniques, where development and production processes take place simultaneously, increase speed. But speed alone is not the measure of success, Robb said. “Our agency needs to focus on delivering the right thing, not just the wrong thing faster.” So in addition to development sprints, his team has added “design sprints to quickly figure out the problem-solution fit.”
Combining design thinking, which focuses on using design to solve specific user problems, is critical to the methodology, he said. “Being hand in hand with the customer – that’s one of the core values our group has.”
“Iterative development is a proven approach,” said Dennis Gibbs, who established the agile development practice in General Dynamics Information Technology’s Intelligence Solutions Division. “Agile and DevOps techniques accelerate the speed of convergence on a better solution. We continually incorporate feedback from the user into the solution, resulting in a better capability delivered faster to the user.”