Chris returned to the room with his beloved trumpet case. He gently picked it up, raised it to his lips, and began playing. Was this the same man we had been speaking with for the past hour? Just 30 minutes earlier I was afraid that if we asked the wrong question he would crumble — his eyes said everything. But here we were, standing in the social room of a transitional housing facility in Los Angeles, listening to a young, formerly homeless Veteran playing the music that brought him solace, and maybe even some joy.

This was our first day of 12 on the road — our second conversation of approximately 100.

In support of Secretary Bob McDonald’s efforts to create a Veteran-centered VA, our team of six traveled across the country for 12 consecutive days with one single goal: to better understand the Veterans we serve.

You see, our small team is a part of the VA Center for Innovation (VACI). Since our inception as a pilot initiative of the Office of the Secretary in 2010 we have grown not only in size and identity, but also in our approach to innovation. As we work to support the growth of a 21st century VA, it has become increasingly clear that if we are serious about innovation then, before effective and sustainable change can occur, we must first understand the people we serve.

This is why we wanted to get outside of the building and meet Veterans like Chris, each with their own story to tell.

“A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” – John le Carre

In pursuit of this deeper understanding, in the spring of 2014, VACI piloted a design-thinking methodology that has proved tried and true outside of government: Human-Centered Design (HCD). The pilot (focused exclusively on the “discovery phase” of the methodology) yielded valuable insights, an initial look at user personas, and a clear picture of the customer journey. Even more importantly, the pilot confirmed that the HCD methodology (1) is valuable and implementable within the VA context, and (2) is critical to our understanding of our customers.

This past fall we scaled up our HCD efforts to validate and build upon the personas and user insights from the spring pilot. We spoke with over 100 Veterans across the country — an experience that has left us with two wholehearted beliefs about the power of this work.

1. Nothing can replace face-to-face conversations. We spent countless hours speaking with people. We listened, shared stories, cried, laughed, and in the end felt a real connection when we parted ways. It is this kind of understanding that should form the core of our work as public servants— whether we are building a website, or greeting a Veteran as they check-in for an appointment.

2. HCD both demands and creates empathy. Speaking to customers through the HCD process demands empathy. It forces you to check your assumptions at the door, focus, and listen to people — really listen. And the more people you speak with, connect with, and understand, the more empathy you gain. We need more of this, not only at the VA, but throughout government. Providing great service requires understanding those we serve, and understanding those we serve requires empathy.

The “human” part of Human-Centered Design is key. It ensures that our work — the services we provide, the technology we use, the products we build — are centered on a deep and personal understanding of the people we are designing for. After all, it is that humanness of our work that drew us to public service and it is that same humanness that should drive us every day.

“We are dealing with people, not procedures — with Veterans’ issues, not our own.”

These wise words were spoken in 1947 by VA Administrator General Omar Bradley. Yes, you read that right: 1947. Yet they ring just as true today.

We believe HCD can help us reorient our operations around the needs of the people we serve, and we are committed to expanding HCD efforts in the months and years to come.

During our HCD pilot we asked Veterans what, if any, company/organization really understood them. Who, if anyone, provided them with A+ service? Overwhelmingly the answer was USAA—a company that has woven HCD principles throughout their operations. Ten years from now we hope that at least a few answers to this question will be “VA.”

**All photos are images of Veterans we spoke with during our HCD efforts and were taken with permission and consent from the interviewee.

Evagelia Emily Tavoulareas is a Civic Technologist working to make government more effective, efficient, and people-centered. She currently leads engagement at the VA Center for Innovation, where she is focused on digital services, open data, and design-thinking.


Ideas within the VHA Innovation Ecosystem are generated through the VA Innovators Network, transformed into reality by the VHA Innovation Program, and then disseminated throughout the VA by the Diffusion of Excellence Initiative.

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    Ideas within the VHA Innovation Ecosystem are generated through the VA Innovators Network, transformed into reality by the VHA Innovation Program, and then disseminated throughout the VA by the Diffusion of Excellence Initiative.

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