Delivering the Best Solution Starts with Listening to Users

Ryan Luu

Group Product Manager at The Washington Post



The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is a department of the federal government charged with delivering life-long healthcare and other benefits to eligible military veterans. Veterans come to the VA to apply for the benefits they are entitled to, but the fragmented and often complicated process makes it difficult for veterans to navigate the different parts of the VA.

The VA consists of multiple smaller branches, each responsible for different benefits -- education, health care, pensions, etc. As a result, each branch would hire developers to build web apps for their particular problems. For example, the healthcare branch would hire developers to build a healthcare application. Therefore, each app would have different logins, different designs, and veterans had a hard time managing their informat and applying for their benefits.

Actions taken

Our team was tasked to create a brand new platform and accompanying processes that would enable disparate teams to build together under a single design and development ecosystem. A common technical infrastructure would enable different development teams to work together using the same data sets, design systems, and development tools, which, in the end, would result in a seamless experience for veterans.

My role was to create documentation and support processes that would allow those development teams to work together. That entailed producing extensive data, design, and product documentation accessible through the platform. Documentation I helped compiled outlined each step of the development of benefits applications. To compile robust and comprehensive documentation, we interviewed a great number of developers, designers, and product owners who shared their approach to developing a new application. That helps us understand what kind of information each group of users would find helpful and how it could be best leveraged in their workflows.

We used the insights obtained through these exchanges to determine the best development approach possible on our platform. We laid out a step by step process, guiding groups through the product life cycle and developed documentation with neatly organized checkpoints and assistance information.

In the pilot phase, we worked with six development teams that we supported throughout the process, ensuring they were following best practices and reaching our standards of quality. Ultimately the teams we supported launched eight applications in four months while working with us. It was rewarding to get new applications from different branches of the VA created as a part of the new platform.

In the end, the new platform was providing enormous value for the end-users -- veterans who could now manage their benefits under one login and with all of their applications and statuses in one place. Due to its tremendous success, our initiative evolved into a new contract, which continued beyond my tenure.

Lessons learned

  • Solving big problems starts with understanding who your users are. Identify who are the people who would need your product. In this instance, there were two layers: our end-users were veterans who had difficulties managing their benefits, but the users we were creating for were actually the development teams. In order to drive outcomes for end-users, we had to understand what development teams need to properly build new benefits applications. We identified various stakeholders who had different perspectives and goals within the development teams -- developers, designers, and product owners. We conducted interviews with each group, seeking to understand their needs and how to give them the right information and support to succeed. Conducting research early on helped us create a repeatable and sustainable process.
  • A product person is first and foremost, an advocate of their users. Therefore, talk to your users and seek to understand their problems - this is where key insights will unveil themselves.
  • If you’re curious about becoming a product manager, take some time to explore what type of users you want to create for. Product development looks different when building for different sets of end-users, and so does the role of a product manager.

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Ryan Luu

Group Product Manager at The Washington Post

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategySoftware DevelopmentTeam & Project Management

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