While working at Optum (United Health Group,) I was part of a medium sized team tasked with guiding the development of an app to help veterans re-acclimate to civilian life. We conducted interviews with veterans, organizers, and veterans’ family members. We compiled our findings, debated what they meant, and ultimately, provided a laundry list of features to the development team.
Only insiders were involved in the design work.
- Designers were all employees of Optum. This manifested more technical solutions than were called for.
- Designers were mostly male, and mostly white or eastern asian.
- Design conversations took place in Optum’s corporate headquarters, in a locked room. Not even all employees were authorized to enter.
I think this stands out to me now that I’m not in that environment. At the time, I was happy to be interviewing people in the real world, and thought that human centered design was the best that we could do. It was more empathetic than the other work I had done at Optum, which was mainly focused on efficiency in our call centers. In hindsight, it is a shame that no impacted veterans were in the room when we were debating the features that were and were not useful. Something tells me that they would have shot down many of the ideas that us 20 somethings thought were appropriate.
The product shall be an app.
When interviewing the veterans, it became clear that they already had substantial assets for their recovery. These were often support groups hosted in their local church basements, and friends willing to be on call in a crisis. The whole time we were compiling our interview results, it was very clear that the expected output of our time would be plans for an app. With that in mind, we set to work creating features. Small groups imagined calendar helpers, gamification of therapy, enhanced chat clients, and more.
Ultimately, the one feature that did get implemented was a video series — pretty low tech. This was a bit of an about-face on the design team’s part, but a good one in my opinion. In the end, though, we shouldn’t have spent a whole week talking about apps. It was abundantly clear from the interviews that mobile apps were not a welcome approach. If we hadn’t wasted so much time trying to imagine a mobile app, we may have been able to provide something better than a (very basic) video series.
Lack of true institutional support.
Some part of me feels like the whole endeavor was akin to government hackathons “as an exercise in the State feeling good about itself.” If United Health Group really wanted to get behind veterans re-entering society, they would support the organizers that we interviewed rather than trying to commodify their insights in an app.
The fact that this design endeavor was pursued by a corporation seriously compromised it in terms of design justice. The well from which we drew our designers was seriously tainted by racial bias in hiring. The problem we were trying to solve was framed as something that must be solved with technology from the beginning, but ultimately, was not. The project was shuttered about 6 months later. This was touted as a win — we “failed fast.” At least we did no harm. I’m not entirely sure that we had to fail, though. By including the insights of our interviewees in a more meaningful way, we could have potentially helped them to make a positive difference in their comrades’ lives.