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On designing a new VA mental health service delivery experience: an Interview with Melissa Chapman

Hello there! My name is Eric Boggs. In 2013, I graduated from AC4D.  I’m blown away on the regular by the things our alumni are doingwhat I am doingand I wanted to share some of those stories with you.

I can’t help but be up front. I want you to know so that you’ll consider coming. Attending AC4D will empower you to drive impactbecause there is no way you can leave the program as less than a creator, leader, and storyteller. These are things that I think a vast majority of us want to master in our lives, but are just unsure of where to start. AC4D guides you through the process.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Melissa Chapman. Melissa recently began her role as the VA Office of Innovation’s Designer in Residence, where she is determined to reimagine a greatly improved mental health service experience for veterans. If you are ever so lucky as to meet her, you will note her to be fiercely empathetic, direct, polished, and owner of a hearty, disarming laugh.

[eb] Can you tell us about your current role?

[mc] Sure. I’m currently serving as the first full-time designer at the VA Center for Innovation (VACI) where my focus is, among other things, working with the team to increase access to mental health services — in a myriad of ways. Before I joined, our Deputy Director worked with the Public Policy Lab and did a lot of generative research with Veterans, practitioners, administrators and staff — identifying a host of pilot projects and opportunity spaces. On day one, she basically handed it to me and said, “go”.

The work is a combination of service, visual and interaction design. The majority of the work occurs in the field alongside users where we routinely shadow doctors and Veterans, prototype, user test, conduct stakeholder interviews, repeat. The other key is knowing who to reach out to for policy clarifications and design feedback, as well as who to get in the room for collaborative workshops.

The core strategy is co-creating and enacting product and service roadmaps that prioritize elements that increase access to mental health services, which requires a combination of advocacy, policy and design. It’s my professional Graceland.

In home prototyping session.
In home prototyping session.

[eb] What has been the most challenging aspect of this work?

[mc] Prioritizing. With so many eager staff and innovation opportunities, it’s challenging to actually focus on the issue at hand.

[eb] What process do you use or have you created to prioritize what gets fixed?

[mc] I’ve started to think more than ever about long-term strategy versus short-term. Long-term strategy I keep very specific and narrow. In the short-term, I’m highly collaborative and open to other opportunities (i.e. know firmly where you’re trying to get, but be flexible on how you get there).

Veteran parking.
Veteran parking.

[eb] What has been the most rewarding moment or aspects of the role?

[mc] Well, lots of them. Hmmm. I was working in a waiting room at a VA Medical Center the day that the Dallas police shootings happened. I was looking around, watching how other people were responding, as it flashed up on the screen that it was a Veteran who had pulled the trigger. All of the news articles I read subsequently indicated that he was having trouble with mental health issues.

So, just the timeliness of this work. And the heart of it. The fact that we’re always working towards being the voice of the Veteran — that won’t get old.

It’s also the best to meet and work alongside true civil servants. These people have been working to improve life at the VA for decades and are happy to hear about, and participate in, this latest chapter of creative problem solving.

[eb] AC4D focuses on the realities of business, too. What does that mean to you in the context of the VA?

mc] We have to think not just about Veteran value, but also business value. And that is what I think distinguishes AC4D. The school is able to train top-tier, interdisciplinary designers who don’t create ideas in a vacuum.

The mental health mapping, for instance. Because Veterans don’t know how to access services, it’s common to present to the ER over and over again. Not only is it a not ideal experience for the Veteran, but also an unsustainable business design. It’s the most expensive way to treat a Veteran that doesn’t guarantee continuity of care. I mean, it’s clear, right? It’s sort of obvious, but also it’s ingrained in our AC4D brains to take that into account as a key constraint of the design process.

AC4D taught us design in the context of business value and systems thinking.

[eb] How did AC4D prepare you for this?

[mc] The curriculum drives home the importance of value; not just beautiful design. Their bullshit meter is so spot-on. It also teaches you to get out of the way of your own process.

[eb] What were you doing prior to AC4D?

[mc] I was coordinating political (mostly environmental) campaigns in the Pacific Northwest.

[eb] Why did you choose AC4D?

[mc] I wanted to build a relevant skill set that’s human-centric and has heart.

[eb] What does your year at AC4D mean to you?

[mc] It was the year that I became in charge of my life. AC4D teaches autonomy. It teaches you to own things and gives you a tool set on how to do so. I see this all the time. For example, I get emails with questions from people that they so clearly could have gotten the answer to… There’s just so much about the world and classic educational systems that train you to not think or act for yourself.

There’s a saying at AC4D: Ideas are free. Implicit in this is… what are you actually going to do about it? The faculty drive that home in a way that’s healthy, but also intense. There’s an urgency to it; then there’s a level of general self-discipline that you build in parallel.

[eb] Who has been most influential for you as a designer/social impact designer?

[mc] In college, I got really into Paul Freire (I know, I know…). In his bookThe Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he talks about praxis: the reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed. Even as the veil of young idealism lifted in my mid 20’s, I always had one eye out for a way to enact this very thing. When I found AC4D, I quickly recognized it as a place where this could be applied in a modern day sense.

[eb] Is there anything else you’d like to share?

[mc] Have you seen the alumni happiness survey? Proof is in the pudding, people!

Austin Center for Design is a not-for-profit educational institution on the East Side of Austin, Texas that exists to transform society through design, and inspires greatness in students leading to happy, impactful, and well compensated graduates.