Designer of Change: Sarah Brooks

Sarah is a service designer, design researcher, practical futurist, and inner-world explorer who has worked across enterprise, startup, non-profit, Federal Government, and community contexts. She is currently a Designer at Apple, focused on health and wellbeing.

You did a stint in the Office of Veterans Affairs in DC, where you were part of a team introducing design strategy and tactics. Can you share some of the highlights of that experience?

Sure, I was part of a four-person team that stood up a new office within the V.A. — a customer experience office called the Veterans Experience Office (VEO). The V.A. is an organization of 350,000+ people serving over nine million Veterans, and our mission was to improve service delivery to Veterans across a complex interrelated suite of services; physiological & psychological healthcare, educational, vocational and burial services for Veterans and their families.

At the time, Veterans were struggling to understand the full suite of benefits they were eligible for. They had to navigate dozens of fragmented digital touch points, wait for long hold times on the phone, or receive slivers of the full picture of information they needed from individuals at V.A. hospitals and benefits centers. The information ecosystem was sprawling and convoluted.

Within the VEO, I took point on recruiting and leading an Insight & Design team. We focused on field research with Veterans across the country from all eras and branches of service, speaking with over 250+ people in urban and rural areas and tribal lands to get at the nuances of what they wanted and needed from V.A. Our team synthesized our field data around where Veterans were getting the most stuck in attempting to access the services they were due, and we shared that with senior V.A leadership to gain agreement on service improvement projects to pursue.

A few examples of how the work took shape are in the VA Welcome Kit, and the lifetime Journey of Veterans (shown below). We also created detailed journey maps of Veterans and narratives that defined and measured the Outpatient Experience program. Visual storytelling based on field research was an important aspect of how we shared what we’d heard and learned in the field from Veterans. The work was successful in prioritizing efforts within V.A. and has been shared broadly across the federal government and the ecosystem of veteran service organizations. A highlight for me was seeing the Secretary of the V.A. hold up a poster-sized journey map to show congress that he was advocating service improvements based on what we learned directly from Veterans.

As we quickly grew the Veterans Experience Office from four to nearly a hundred over a 2+ year period, we were able to build out measurement and community engagement capabilities as well. The work continues, as does the broader movement across government agencies to establish similar customer-experience oriented efforts. It’s a win for residents and all of us who rely on government services in so many ways that help our daily lives.

You consider storytelling to be a “super power” of designers. Can you explain what you mean?

Our human brains are wired for making sense and meaning from the world through story and emotion. We’re emotional beings who tell ourselves stories about what our experiences mean, who we are, and who other people are based on the various contexts we’ve experienced throughout our lives. It’s very natural. As designers, we practice shaping stories through the various mediums we work with, and we use the power of those mediums to assist us. Those stories may be to persuade, manipulate, question, prompt, divide people or to bridge divides — the purposes are many.

At the V.A., as is common in a government organization, much of the communication aimed at creating change happens in long form written reports. We found that presenting field research that included photographs of people in their environments (such as homes, tribal lands, or meeting places) combined with their own words about their experiences was very impactful in changing the conversation around why we should pursue or prioritize one service improvement over another. It helped people from various parts of the organization align toward the common purpose we all shared — creating change that mattered for Veterans.

Hearing the stories of Veterans was life-changing for me, someone without a military background. Understanding the many reasons people chose to serve, hearing stories of great personal loss, moral injury, physical injury, military sexual trauma, friendship, camaraderie, loyalty…it fueled the urgency of the work, and could also be overwhelming. It was painful to see how much needed to change, and how — despite good intentions and dedicated employees — the organization was coming up short in so many ways.

As you note, these struggles can be emotionally draining. What helped you guide and sustain your team?

The starting point was setting the stage for the team in terms of the importance of the mission and also the magnitude of the challenges we were up against. The work is not for everyone and a few people bounced out of the team quickly, but most stayed, and some are still there which is exciting and inspiring to me.

There’s an incredible ecosystem of designers working across government contexts. Shoutout to all of them. It’s hard work with a set of constraints that is very different than the private sector. The mission was our guide — improving service delivery for America’s Veterans. We had strong support from the Secretary (the senior most leader) who looked to the Veterans Experience Office as leaders of change. People knew up front that the work was hard, and that we’d always have to have each other’s backs unquestioningly. Building that culture of support and psychological safety was very important.

We encouraged each other to be self-aware, act with relational intelligence and practice real self-care (see Puja Lakshmin for more about what I mean here). Because we’re human and wildly imperfect, we each had our ups and downs. Yet we were able to be real with each other, to always have each other’s backs, and that meant everything in terms of sustaining us through all of it.

Thanks Sarah!

Find more interviews and insights like these in our latest book, Changemakers: How Leaders Can Design Change in an Insanely Complex World. Available now on Amazon or Rosenfeld Media.

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