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Discovery Phase: Understanding the problem

Veterans have dedicated their lives to serving Canada. Whether it’s RCMP or Canadian Armed Forces, leaving the service is like leaving a family and a job all at once. Veterans face many different challenges in this new phase of their life that are very different from the physical and psychological stresses they faced every day while wearing the uniform. One of the many major challenges is understanding and accessing the 20-plus benefits and services offered to them.

As a result, in mid November of 2017, the Code For Canada Federal Fellows and CDS began to work with Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) on a project called Benefits At a Glance. The goal of Benefits At a Glance is to create an online tool to help Veterans better understand and access benefits and services relevant to them.

The Discovery Phase of the project started with three main knowledge objectives:

  1. Understand Veterans’ needs as they relate to benefits
  2. Understand the relationship between Veterans and VAC
  3. Understand the benefits themselves

Three birds, one stone

The team began by interviewing VAC employees, but paying extra attention to the frontline staff. Frontline staff help Veterans on a daily, if not hourly basis and are a great way to understand the intersection of needs between Veterans and VAC. The Veterans Ombudsman Office generously offered three hours of training to help the team learn how to navigate the benefits offered to a Veteran. By doing just this, we were able to take a crack at all three objectives.

It’s easy to think the root cause of information problems is the sheer quantity of it. One of our early assumptions was that the navigation was challenging due to having too many benefits to choose from, but instead discovery revealed that it was an information quality problem; the benefits themselves were difficult to understand. Finding quality information is like panning for gold, you have to sift through a lot to get the pieces you value.

This surfaced when staff reported that they didn’t have a quick way to reference how a benefit could help Veterans; staff needed to rely on memory or look up source material and then rephrase and explain benefits over and over again. In addition, this made answering simple sounding questions like ‘What is a Veteran eligible for?’ very difficult to answer because staff had to not only understand what the Veteran’s needs were, but also understand how every benefit could or could not be relevant for that specific Veteran.

From a Veteran’s perspective, information quality problems surfaced when benefits were inconsistent across multiple channels. For example a benefit could be named differently from website, to form, to printed material. To make matters more confusing, the benefits were not written in plain language, making it challenging and frustrating for both Veterans and frontline staff to communicate. This doesn’t setup either side for a successful, let alone productive dialogue.

Aha moment

One of our biggest realizations was that the discovery scope needed to be shifted. The original problem was focused on the benefits themselves, which led the team to question who the information is helping and how it would help in the larger picture. In order to make an impact on the life of a Veteran the shift couldn’t solely be focused on the benefit or a series of benefits. Instead of just focusing on navigating benefits, the team turned its eye towards looking at how Veterans accessed benefits.

This also falls directly in line with the Ministerial Letter to “make it easier for Veterans to access services… and do more to support”. This change intentionally focused the team’s efforts on understanding the journey of a Veteran. This meant the team needed to understand what a Veteran went through from still-serving, to release, to life after the uniform.

Understanding the Veteran’s journey was absolutely necessary, but not easy by any stretch. The team learned a lot from the volumes of research at VAC and other organizations but interactions with Veterans was very limited. By the end of 8 weeks (early January) the team still didn’t have an understanding of the veteran’s journey from pre-release to life after service. Plans to do simple interviews at VAC offices grew increasingly complex and so the team pivoted many times.

The importance of doing user research was so high that the team had to extend the discovery phase. Only after analyzing the Veteran’s journey to see their life, their needs, and their goals would the team be able to build a user-centric product.