Designing Vets.gov

I didn’t fully understand the mission until I went to Utah last year.

I’d been working on a web application for the Department of Veterans Affairs for several months, and I’d just flown into Salt Lake City for usability testing with our beta testers. Having not grown up in a military family, my experience with veterans — what it means to be one, what it means to serve — was largely shaped by news reports about veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

That all changed when I walked into a VA medical facility. I saw the men and women that served us. Some were doing well, others were struggling from the costs of military conflict. They served us in ways that are humbling and hard to confront.

I was there to do informal usability testing on an app with an interesting challenge: to make the process of filling out forms easier for VA medical examiners. If ever there was an application design that needs to be as efficient, quiet, and mostly stay out of the way, this was it.

Several months after this experience, I was honored to be part of the small team working on vets.gov. Our group of content strategists and designers came up with core voice and design principles that largely mirrored those that we used when working on medical forms in Salt Lake City. We scribbled a lot on white boards, but three principles that have stayed with me are:

Be quiet, respectful and empathetic.

Unlike many projects where it’s so easy — required, even — to insert design flourishes or a strong brand, it was clear that vets.gov has to be very different. This design has to be incredibly efficient, letting content and interactions take center stage.

Whiteboard with writing
An early vets.gov whiteboard session

Launched on Veterans day in 2015, vets.gov is a bold vision to reimagine how we serve veterans, but we’re starting small, and being agile and iterating as we learn. We’ve started by presenting the two categoies of information a veteran most needs: disability benefits and education benefits. These are two of the most popular categories on VA.gov. This information is a very long way from being exhaustive or definitive, but it is a start in a new direction — showing how the VA can communicate in an simple and clear way.

We’re building this with talented team of content strategists and problem solvers, designers and coders from the United State Digital Service, Presidential Innovation Fellows, as well as great small business tech talent from outside government. Here’s how we’re attempting to achieve our core principles from a design perspective.

Be quiet

There are no images. And, taking a page from gov.uk, there aren’t any icons to distract you. Text, color, and a simple grid provide layout and hierarchy. Whenever possible, content is presented in one column. This way, there’s less chance of getting lost, distracted, or confused about what’s truly important. Simply read top to bottom, then make your next decision. We’re also using the U.S. Web Design Standards, to make sure the vets.gov design is consistent with others across the government.

Be respectful

There are no tricks in our design, and nothing to distract you from the most important content. No sidebar, no widgets. No pop-ups or surveys. Nothing to take your attention away. Design patterns are kept to a small number, and repeated consistently. Over time, these simple design patterns will evolve in a pattern library used across all vets.gov services and interactions, whether they occur online, on paper, or in person.

Be empathetic

We understand that vets.gov content will be used and reused in many different contexts. It will be viewed on computers old and new. There will be dialup connections, slow wireless networks, broadband, and unexpected technical challenges we can’t plan for. We plan for the unexpected by building with web standards and a mobile-first, responsive approach. We’re keeping the number of building blocks in our design system very small, to start, only adding to them when we’re confident they work in as many situations as possible. By taking a conservative approach, We’re able to build web pages that can be easily printed, shared, read aloud as text-to-speech, or displayed on your cousin’s old not-so-smartphone.

Build something empowering and easy to use.

Usability testing has been baked into our design process and will continue to be with every iteration. Nothing tops testing vets.gov with actual veterans. We continue to do usability testing as we build. In addition, as our site traffic grows, we plan on combining our testing results with data to refine and inform our user experience.

We need your help.

As a lead designer on vets.gov, it’s been an amazing privilege to work a design challenge filled with great purpose. But we can’t do it alone.

If you’re a designer, writer, user experience designer or usability expert, we need your help to make this better. Join us on GitHub and help us provide a level of service to Veterans that we can all be proud of. Got a content edit for us? Found a design problem that needs fixing? We need to hear from you.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons