Bringing service design to the VA digital services platform

To best support the public, government digital services teams need the right tools and resources to do their jobs.

At the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Ad Hoc supports the Veteran Services Platform (VSP) program, which is a centralized suite of tools, standards, and frameworks that government and vendor teams across the VA use to build services for Veterans. To meet the needs of internal customers, Ad Hoc’s platform service design team, in collaboration with our prime contractor Oddball, takes a service design approach to continuously gather feedback from those internal customers and use that information to improve their interactions and experiences with the VSP program.

Improving support services for VSP customers

For the VSP program, our customers are development teams who are building applications on to deliver services to Veterans. While service design is usually focused on improving experiences for external customers, we’ve taken that same approach to inform improvements to our internal systems and processes.

Using the service blueprint for onboarding

For example, the service design team collaborated with VSP internal teams to create a service blueprint that maps the onboarding tasks a new developer must complete to access the platform and begin deploying code. This same blueprint maps the tasks internal teams must perform to ensure the developer is successfully onboarded and the tools, technology, and processes the team uses.

This blueprint made it easier for VSP teams to see the areas of the process that were highly manual, time-consuming, and not scalable for VSP internal teams. It further uncovered sources of friction and confusion for customers.

Because the blueprint was a collaborative effort, getting buy-in to address those critical pain points for customers wasn’t an issue. We used Mural to collaborate with a cross-functional team and kept the blueprint itself low-fidelity; its purpose was to facilitate conversations and shared understanding of the problem, not be a polished artifact.

As a result of the service blueprint effort, VSP internal teams developed a new business process to support onboarding new developers to the platform, and they employed technology already in use for an existing offboarding process (a GitHub ticket template that automatically tags internal teams to complete required tasks required for onboarding). This helped increase efficiency and added automation into their process.

Developing roadmaps from continuous feedback

Because this work is ongoing, we continue to gather feedback on each touchpoint a developer may have with the platform and use that to create journey maps alongside the blueprints of their experiences (Kendra Skeene’s earlier blog post provides an in-depth explanation of journey maps and blueprints). With that information, we aim to build a holistic view of our service and how people interact with it.

This larger view is much more powerful than feedback on a single tool or process. By gathering information that crosses teams and products, we can better coordinate our work and use the information to inform roadmap planning.

To build this roadmap, the service design team conducts a quarterly survey to gauge customer satisfaction with the platform. The survey asks participants to share their role and rate how much they agree with the statement, “The Platform team helps me build quality experiences for Veterans on” Customers can also provide open-ended feedback as part of the survey.

The service design team analyzes that feedback and prepares a quarterly report, grouping feedback into themes and including verbatim quotes from customers. The team then shares that information with platform teams and VA leadership ahead of quarterly planning. Pain points uncovered during this research, along with other user research conducted during the quarter, are used to inform priorities for upcoming work on the platform.

Improving customer support through team rotations

Another critical part of providing quality infrastructure services is providing customer support. The platform infrastructure allows the Digital Services at Veterans Affairs (DSVA) product teams to easily spin up new websites and applications, continuously improve and iterate, and scale over time. As the platform has matured, the number of platform customers — DSVA product teams — has grown exponentially.

To support the growing number of DSVA product teams, the platform teams have created a support rotation. One member from each area — backend, frontend, testing, DevOps — spends a week on customer support. The teams handle this support primarily via a Slack channel, which is open to all DSVA team members. Customers — developers, product managers, and designers on the web application product teams — post their questions, requests, and other needs to Slack. The platform team members on support rotation monitor the channel and respond to requests in their areas. A support rotation list is posted in the Slack channel and updated frequently, so customers can tag the person on support that day with any urgent or time-sensitive requests.

Once this Slack channel support became operational, the service design team collaborated with engineering teams to explore how to improve it for both customer experience and the supporting teams. After conducting interviews with customers and platform support staff, the service design team identified key user needs and developed a prototype solution for standardizing support requests posted in Slack and capturing support metrics. The new support workflow automatically tags the on-call support person for a particular team, so support staff can count on Slack notifications for requests rather than having to monitor the channel and read every post.

As a result, customer satisfaction increased 21% throughout 2021, with customer support routinely praised in open-ended feedback as being reliable and responsive.

The new process also provides a source of data for continuous improvement – we’re able to use the information collected in support requests to analyze patterns and have discovered potential areas for improvement in onboarding, documentation, and communication.

Organizing developer documentation

Another area where service design has benefitted internal teams has been in identifying top tasks for application developers and organizing developer documentation around them. Doing this informs information architecture for the platform’s developer documentation website.

Comprehensive, accurate, and up-to-date developer documentation is a critical service for a technical platform to provide to customers. The platform had documentation, but it was often outdated and hard for customers to find. Internal teams were also spending time providing support for new developers on items that were covered in onboarding documentation, indicating that the documentation was not meeting user needs.

We created a simple dashboard in Google Data Studio that connected to the Google Sheet containing Slack channel support requests. Doing so enabled stakeholders like product managers and product owners to view and analyze customer support requests. This dashboard also showed calculated metrics to help us understand how often support staff were providing documentation to users and how effective the documents were at resolving requests – one of the primary questions the support tracking initiative was intended to answer.

The dashboard also provided data visualization and metrics for platform teams – product managers in particular – to report support request volume and types of requests received for their team during each sprint.

Service design for successful results

To have a platform where many teams of app developers are contributing to the website and to the overall user experience, it’s critical to provide consistent experiences and processes. By incorporating a service design approach with internal users, we’re able to understand their needs and what they’re struggling with. Using service design will help us ensure throughout the process that what we’re building meets their expectations and helps them improve their customers’ experiences.