Almost everything we do today is accessible through a simple tap on the phone, from ordering groceries to ordering a quick ride across town. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recognized the value of having accessible, on-demand healthcare and benefits on your phone. Through a discovery sprint, VA established the value of having easy access to Veteran health and benefit information, and the VA Health and Benefits app began to develop.
The journey toward building the VA Health and Benefits app involved extensive collaboration with Veterans. First, OIT had to determine if Veterans want or even need an app to access health and benefits information. OIT conducted discovery interviews with Veterans to learn what issues they faced with VA digital services and if they access VA services through their mobile devices.
These listening sessions uncovered significant challenges Veterans were facing. For example, Veterans were struggling to sign into their accounts online. Building the VA Health and Benefits app would help ease these frustrations by developing some biometrics such as fingerprint recognition or facial recognition.
While the User Experience team worked on this human-centered design approach, the engineering team had to establish a technical method for the app development. When looking at different approaches, the team came to the consensus that a cross-platform technique would best fit VA’s needs. A cross-platform method allows teams to use one codebase for one app compatible with both Android and iOS.
Our engineering team also had to determine which technical framework would allow User Experience flexibility, component reusability, and ease of developer tooling. Using a Hello World application, the engineering team tested multiple frameworks through an existing open-source API from VA. React Native best aligned with the goals of the app, which proved advantageous because VA already has React skills in their system and allows custom native code when needed.
With these bases covered, the prototype for the app began to take shape in the spring of 2020. When designing the prototype, our team focused on accessibility to Veterans; the team wanted to make sure every Veteran has a seamless digital experience when visiting the VA Health and Benefits app. Building apps that allow every Veteran, whether they are sight or hearing impaired, an easy, accessible experience is imperative to VA.
To make this happen the team put together quality assurance test accessibility requirements, implemented design contrast requirements, had feature-specific accessibility requirements, and developed an accessibility test plan implementing Section 508 requirements. When developing this accessibility-first approach to the app, Veteran feedback and research continuously stayed at the forefront.
So far, there have been over 822,000 unique app downloads since the launch, with over 2 million VA letters downloaded, almost 443,000 active users monthly, and over 525,000 secure messages sent. One user says, “VA hit the nail on the head with this app. I can’t stress enough how useful it is. I can message my healthcare provider, check appointments, get official letters, view my claims, and check payments…it’s so much easier now.“ The app currently has an average rating of 4.8 out of five stars on the Apple App Store and an average rating of 4.6 out of 5 stars on Google Play Store.
The VA Health and Benefits App is another step toward furthering digital transformation in the Federal Government. Our team created this app with Veterans in mind and is a way for us to repay Veterans for their service to our country. At VA, our end goal is to transform the federal customer experience, and the VA Health and Benefits App is a powerful tool to accomplish this.
Our commitment to digital and IT transformation is shaped by daily dedication to customer service and the close collaboration of our workforce, managers, and leaders. Ready to join us in improving Veterans’ care? Check out all current information and technology career opportunities on DigitalVA. You can also contact VA’s Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer at 512-326-6600, Monday thru Friday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. CST or by submitting a resume to VACareers@va.gov.