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Veterans Mentorship Program

Mentorship Program for Veterans

As part of SVA Products of Design’s partnership with Veterans Affairs (and held through the Design Research and Integration class taught by IDEO’s Lawrence Abrahamson) , designers Sowmya Iyer, Manako Tamura, Jingting He, Andrew Schlesinger, Sebastian Harmsen, and Louis Elwood Leach used design to help engage new vets—encouraging them to take advantage of the services available to them.

Building on the findings of over 20 first-person interviews with VA staff and discharged veterans, the group surfaced three principal insights: The first is that there is an opportunity to facilitate better communication between veterans—veteran-to-veteran. The team learned that information around the transition to civilian life, and around the available veteran services “is perceived better when it comes straight from a veteran,” the team argued. “Veteran-to-veteran creates a much stronger bond, and the ‘young veteran’ is more likely to pay attention and communicate interest when the information comes directly from the source.”

The second insight centered around the perception of the quality of services at the VA. “A lot of young veterans have a bad perception of the VA ‘due to bad media,’” the group reported, “when in actuality, we felt that the VA offers some excellent services.”

The third insight was around the value of helping veterans become more aware of their opportunities and values. “The recently-discharged veteran may have no idea of the potential that they have,” the designers argued. “They have been put through so much in the military, and we felt that if they had some instructive (and constructive) guidance, they could achieve so much more.”

Finally, the group learned that it would be incredibly valuable to create design interventions that facilitated connections within the veteran community. “We met veterans who have a sense of a larger mission, and really do want to help the veteran community. We believe that design could play a key role here.”

Transitions is a representation of the emotional journey of a veteran—through the various phases of military life, transitioning, and then stepping into civilian life. “Through our research, we came to understand that there are fundamental rhythms, expectations, and feelings that become completely disconnected once the vet enters civilian life. For instance, their life and routine has a structure and discipline during military life. But once they step into civilian shoes, their routine can become ‘mundane’ and, as a consequence, vets can find it difficult to cope.”

“Conversely,” the designers found, “there are a couple of key feelings that get carried over—remaining consistent through the transition to civilian life: a sense of community, and a ‘soldier identity’."

The whole point here is that the essential services information isn't sent through direct mail. Rather, it’s passed in a more meaningful and immediate way: In person, one-on-one.”

 

The designers proposed a user journey that was simple and logical, and that ladders up in level of engagement:

1. Conduct outreach out to interest new female vets in getting involved in the program
2. Create a sign up flow over a digital platform
3. Connect sympathetic, like-minded individuals based on their profiles
4. Facilitate a one-to-one meet-up, and equip the meetings with pertinent and supportive printed information

One of the most insightful decisions that the designers made was to leverage existing external veteran organizations—rather than trying to invent one. Here, the group settled on “The Mission Continues”—an organization that already seemed to appeal to younger veterans. “Since our goal was to tap into a younger crowd of veterans, we narrowed our focus and thought it would make a lot of sense to build from their base. In fact, their declared purpose on their website entirely aligns with our earlier research: ‘The Mission Continues empowers veterans who are adjusting to life at home to find purpose through community impact.’”

The team mocked-up The Mission Continues website with the addition of the "Mentorship" item in the top navigation bar. Other than that, the site's look-and-feel are completely preserved:

“We know that the VA is not permitted to directly advertise to the public. So our idea was to leverage the supporting brands to reach our audience, raise awareness, and promote participation.”

 

Further—and this is significant—they noted that The Mission Continues already enjoys significant corporate sponsorship. Since the designers’ proposals would require some public advertising media and collateral support, they argued, having a modest funding stream already built in would reduce the friction of getting initiatives of the ground. “Also, we thought it would be prudent to align and leverage the brands throughout the use journey that are already tied to and supportive of The Mission Continues. As designers, we felt that working with pre-aligned organizations would have the highest likelihood of success.”

“We also knew that the VA is not permitted to directly advertise to the public. So our idea was to leverage the supporting brands to reach our audience, raise awareness, and promote participation.”

Finally, the group was adamant that the the external organization work in close concert with the VA in order to insure that the services were correctly represented, and that any information exchanged between new and “veteran” vets would be accurate and up-to-date. Here, “a simple toolkit of essential and useful information” would be created and available through sharing,” the designers offered, “but not through direct mail, or by simply hoping that someone might ‘pick up a pamphlet’. The whole point is that essential services information would be passed in a more meaningful and immediate way: In person, one-on-one.”

“We kept the user experience and graphic look-and-feel consistent with the Mission Continues site, building off of their existing style and aesthetic. This would insure a seamless fit between their brand and and the member base.” Here, the designers decided not to create a conspicuous new brand extension; they wanted their new offerings be completely inconspicuous and “look entirely native to the existing brand experience.”

By asking experienced veterans to become mentors, the program essentially invites them to also become ambassadors for the VA.

 

Here's how a The Mission Continues mentorship program might work—from two different perspectives: The experienced veteran; and the recently-discharged veteran.

The first step is reaching out to experienced veterans, encouraging them to join a mentorship program. “We felt that this has a high likelihood of success, because our research revealed that every day, the VA interacts with amazing veterans who want to give back to the community. This initial outreach creates a perfect moment for the VA to identify those individuals, and to encourage them to become mentors.”

Here, “The Mission Continues Mentorship” business cards could be handed out by VA personnel—by doctors, nurses, front desk personnel or really anyone at the VA.” Additionally, mentorship flyers would be located throughout the VA to encourage signup.

Next is attracting recent veterans to sign up for the mentorship program. “This is the moment where the existing Mission Continues partnerships come into great effect. Disney is an existing sponsor, for example, so when a veteran's movie ticket discount is exercised, a flyer can be given out to the vet along with their ticket. Equinox is a also sponsor, and gyms are a popular place to find veterans. So this also a great moment to reach out."

"Vets can currently use their veteran status to get discounts at Target. And since Target is also a major sponsor of The Mission Continues, the advertising message around mentoring can be automatically printed on their receipt!"

Finally, Southwest Airlines is already a primary sponsor for the Mission Continues, so plane tickets and digital boarding passes—which already identify military personnel—could have mentorship messaging on them.

Next, interested potential mentors go the website platform where they create a profile, identify the areas where they feel most comfortable providing advisement, and identify the gender preference of a mentee. (The group notes that “although our research indicates that women prefer to not be 'divided into another group', we are aware of the high percentage of Military Sexual Trauma, and feel this should be an option in case of preference.")

For new vets, they can also find their way to the platform via the various touchpoints. When they arrive at the site, they similarly identify the areas that they'd like to get some help and information about. Using matching algorithms, the mentorship platform puts together a tailored toolkit made up of appropriate information packets—and sends it to the mentor, along with notifying them of their match!

The designers describe a possible scenario between an experienced veteran (Jessica), and a new vet (Roxana): "Using a gift card from Starbucks—a corporate sponsor for the program—Jessica and Roxana are matched by the platform and meet for the first time at a local Starbucks cafe. There, the two get acquainted and go over the toolkit together—strategizing about, for example, how to get the information together in order for Roxana to acquire the certificate of eligibility for the GI Bill. In addition to discussing the GI bill, Jessica also tells Roxana about the treatments that she currently receives at the local VA hospital—where she was actually recruited from. And after meeting with Jessica, Roxana feels better informed about the services available to her, and decides to make her first appointment at the VA hospital."

"The most difficult barrier for the VA to engaging new veterans is that they aren’t even aware of what services they are eligible for," offer the designers. "Mentoring is a great way to get this information across, of course, but it’s also a tried-and-true way of building trusted friendships that can provide all kinds of support. Having the VA in common is the perfect way to start!”

"Partnering with a non-governmental organization such as The Mission Continues provides a short runway to corporate sponsorship and media advertising, and while these advertisements mostly target recently discharged veterans, the VA can leverage them to reach out to experienced veterans who already use their services. By asking these veterans to become mentors, the program essentially invites them to be ambassadors for the VA."

Process

Representatives from the Veterans Experience Office and the New York Harbor Healthcare System (VA Hospital) came to Products of Design to participate in a group discussion around women veterans.Topics ranged from the perception of women military in our society, to their unique needs in accessing healthcare services throughout the VA system, to stakeholder eco-system mapping—trying to identify the main players in the area, along with learning about their top needs and interactions.

The partnered project started off with three unique design prompts:

How might we help women veterans "be seen" as veterans in our society and culture?

How might we help improve no-show rates at the women’s clinic?

How might we engage younger, transitioning vets to take advantage of the various health services and events at VA?

 

The team of 6 has gone wide in conducting interviews covering the full spectrum of demographics: age, gender, and ethnicity. Additionally, the team has interviewed VA staff to gain insight into the organizational structure and day to day interactions. What has been particularly challenging and interesting is synthesizing all the interview notes, quotes, and themes. The team has adopted a method of writing down key phrases on post-its from each interview to then cluster the phrases into themes. Next, themes are connected across multiple interviews to pull out key insights which span across the board. These broader insights become the basis for guiding design principles. The design principles helped the team to move in a focus direction which was leaning
towards mentorship programs and toolkits to help mentors guide their respective mentees.
It was followed by further interviews with VA staff in terms of feasibility and usefulness of the concept. Creating artifacts and mockups for the concept along with testing it simultaneously was the process.