Insights on Gravesites

This post is the third in a series produced for a Harvard Kennedy School field class on innovation in government. Our team is working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Cemetery Administration. You can read about our project here and about our experience doing field research and interviewing veterans here.

Armed with packs of sticky notes and Sharpies, we were prepared to synthesize all of our research into what we thought were the most important takeaways. The catch: we weren't allowed to speak.

This technique, called the K-J method, allowed us to digest the deluge of information we collected and efficiently reach a consensus. Our findings came from a wide variety of sources, from a Massachusetts National Cemetery site visit to interviews with fifteen veterans. We also conducted "usability tests," where we watched individuals use the existing gravesite locator tool or competitor sites, and asked them questions along the way.

Our five-step approach to collecting information about cemeteries.

Our five-step approach to collecting information about cemeteries.

While we learned a lot from visiting the Massachusetts National Cemetery and trying existing gravesite locators, we found it invaluable to interview veterans, family members of veterans, and staff from the VA and the National Cemetery Administration (NCA). We came out of every interview with a unique perspective on the process of discovering, locating, and visiting gravesites at NCA cemeteries.

A diagram detailing the demographics of our interviewees. We interviewed 28 people, including 13 NCA staff and 15 members of the public. Our external research prioritized veterans and family or friends, which are not mutually exclusive groups.

A diagram detailing the demographics of our interviewees. We interviewed 28 people, including 13 NCA staff and 15 members of the public. Our external research prioritized veterans and family or friends, which are not mutually exclusive groups.


Through our series of interviews, we gained a thorough understanding of what people experience when trying to find a gravesite in an NCA cemetery. We divided the process into five phases: discovering, planning, traveling, navigating to a section, and finally finding the gravesite. We also identified the pain points in each phase that could make the experience frustrating for a visitor or stop the visit altogether.

As we interviewed people about their experiences grieving, honoring, and remembering their loved ones, it was clear that frustration was not the only emotion involved. With that in mind, we also mapped a range of emotions visitors could be feeling onto each phase in the process. For instance, during the planning process, a visitor may be pleased with finding information efficiently. On the other hand, a different visitor may be confused or disappointed if he or she is unable to find a specific gravesite using the gravesite locator.

While each person’s journey is unique, there were many similarities among those we interviewed. We leveraged these similarities to identify four overarching types of visitors:

Discoverer - The discoverer may not have a close personal relationship with someone at the cemetery, but loves ad hoc exploring and learning about veterans' stories.

Returning Visitor - The returning visitor may have visited NCA cemeteries before but is still unfamiliar and recently became ready to visit a cemetery.

First-Time Visitor - The first-time visitor is unfamiliar with the NCA and NCA cemeteries and is visiting a close friend that was recently buried.

Regular Visitor - The regular visitor is very familiar with the NCA after regularly visiting over several years and values personal interactions and connections with cemetery staff.

We gave each type a fictional profile, including a name, face, the typical needs and attitudes of the person during a visit to a cemetery, and other characteristics such as level of vulnerability during the visit.

The four personas that we developed in order to remind us of the needs and attitudes of each type of visitor.

The four personas that we developed in order to remind us of the needs and attitudes of each type of visitor.

After organizing our thoughts into profiles of visitors and the journey they would take when trying to find a gravesite, we identified four key insights from all of our research:

  1. There is a lack of awareness and understanding about NCA and its services.  Many people we interviewed had not heard of the NCA and do not use its tools to find graves. Additionally, some veterans’ negative perceptions of the VA extend to the NCA and its online tools; for instance, they expect to not be able to find helpful information online.
  2. Existing gravesite locator resources are insufficient.  Kiosks that allow people to search for a gravesite and print a map can be out of order, run out of paper, or be difficult to use. Similarly, the online gravesite locator does not always work, it may be hard to use, or visitors do not know it exists. Staff resources are also limited, especially when visitors come outside of cemetery operating hours.
  3. Visitors with maps may still face challenges.  There are environmental challenges to finding a gravesite, e.g. grave markers look very similar, poor weather conditions may make markers difficult to see, or cemetery sections may change over time with new burials. Cemeteries may also simply have an unintuitive layout, which is especially difficult for a first-time visitor to navigate.
  4. Many visitors seek to better memorialize veterans digitally.  Many visitors feel the information available online about a gravesite is disappointing and even disrespectful. They want to learn more information about those buried, such as length of service and honors awarded, while striking a balance with privacy and respect.

Next Steps

Armed with our research, insights and key takeaways, our next steps will be to develop a prototype of a potential solution. Inevitably, this will involve lots of testing, some failures and even more insights. Whatever prototype or solution that we arrive at, however, our goals will ultimately be to:

  • Facilitate discovery and planning
  • Support visitors at all hours
  • Guide visitors reliably to their destination
  • Provide respectful and dignified service

Overall, we see our project as an opportunity to bring all walks of life together to honor the past and provide hope for the future through love and healing. We have a challenging path ahead of us, but we are excited to brainstorm possible solutions, prototype, test the prototypes, and improve what we build! 

-Keith Caton, Athena Kan, Emily Middleton, Devyn Paros, Yuko Tanaka


How to find a gravesite? And other questions

Making the journey. Early one Friday morning, Team VA piled into a tiny Ford Focus with some pastries, some muffins, and a mission. Our destination: Massachusetts National Cemetery, in Bourne. We wanted to experience finding a specific gravesite first-hand.

We had quickly realized when conducting our secondary research that exploring the National Cemetery Association (NCA) website was not sufficient. We had grown familiar with the site’s gravesite locator tool, but we sought to learn more. To really understand the user journey, we had to make a journey ourselves.

The entrance to the Massachusetts National Cemetery

The entrance to the Massachusetts National Cemetery

Keith and Devyn had a specific mission in mind: to locate the gravesite of Petty Officer Tyler John Trahan.

Keith and Devyn used a kiosk in the visitor center to look up Petty Officer Trahan's burial location: section 41, gravesite 1456. The kiosk printed a black and white map of the cemetery with road names and section numbers.

Grave Locator kiosk in Massachusetts National Cemetery and map of the grounds

Grave Locator kiosk in Massachusetts National Cemetery and map of the grounds

Navigation grew more complex soon after they hopped back in the car. Even for two self-declared “map people,” Keith and Devyn had trouble orienting the map with its curving streets, circular-shaped sections, and small text. When they found section 41 — marked by an engraved, narrow granite post — they realized that snow covered many of the flat grave markers. Undeterred, they walked up and down the rows, brushing off snow to reveal grave numbers, until they found Petty Officer Trahan’s grave and paid their respects.

Paying respects at Petty Officer Trahan’s grave

Paying respects at Petty Officer Trahan’s grave

Meeting the staff. We also spoke with the Cemetery Director, Assistant Director, and Head Foreman. They told us about the types of people who visit, the layout of the cemetery, and how staff and volunteers interact with visitors.

We had five main takeaways:

  1. Over 50% of people who visit during office hours are older (aged 65+). We must ensure we understand the needs of this group, and if they are different from those of other groups.

  2. The cemetery has a higher volume of visitors than we realized. The Bourne cemetery staff estimated approximately 200 visitors per day, on average. (We later spoke to cemetery staff at Fort Snelling and Riverside whicho typically receive upwards of 1000 visitors per day.)

  3. Cemetery staff and volunteers often help visitors to locate graves, even though that is often beyond the scope of their job description.

  4. The cemetery has limited human resources. Bourne has employed only one additional staff member to manage the cemetery in the last 15 years, despite adding many more grave sites. They rely on volunteers, such as those from the SFC Jared C. Monti Foundation, to help plant flags on Memorial Day for example.

  5. Many people visit outside of office hours. In early morning, evening, weekends, and on national holidays, visitors likely rely more heavily on the grave locator kiosk. During these times, the public information center is not staffed.

When we visited, many gravesites were covered by snow

When we visited, many gravesites were covered by snow

Understanding our users. Once we had a better understanding of NCA cemetery operations, we narrowed our focus to two user groups: veterans, and family members and friends of veterans.

Meet Patrick*. Patrick served in the US Marine Corps for seven years. He now teaches naval science at a college and still actively engages with the military community. Patrick’s deployments included Afghanistan, where he lost several close friends and teammates and experienced significant psychological trauma.


"For me, navigating through that was a nightmare."

- Patrick, Marine Corps Veteran


Patrick has paid his respects in three NCA cemeteries. His first visit was especially difficult. He remarked, “There weren’t clear markers...I just didn’t understand the layout.” At two of the three cemeteries Patrick visited, his friend was not in the system or the terminal malfunctioned. Once, he relied on a friend’s approximate directions.

Most recently, Patrick visited Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego County. He was reluctant to try the grave locator terminal given his previous experiences, but it worked. Using the small map print-out, the grave number and a larger map in the visitor center, he found the site relatively quickly. Landmarks that appeared on the larger map helped him to navigate, and the number markers were clear. He left with a positive impression of the cemetery.

We will continue to speak to more users throughout the project. We highly value understanding the user journey, testing our assumptions, and receiving users’ feedback at all stages of the design process. So expect to read about more users on this blog soon!

Keith Caton, Athena Kan, Emily Middleton, Devyn Paros, Yuko Tanaka

*Name has been changed



Honoring Veterans in a Digital Age

Introduction. The government agency with the highest satisfaction rating is probably one you’ve never heard of. In budget and staff, the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) is the smallest agency within the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Despite its low profile and small size, however, NCA scored a 96 in customer service, the highest of any public or private entity in 2016.

Calverton National Cemetery, the largest cemetery in NCA’s purview.

Calverton National Cemetery, the largest cemetery in NCA’s purview.

Enter a multidisciplinary team of Harvard students. Last week, Jessica Tozer of the NCA visited our Tech and Innovation in Government class at the Harvard Kennedy School to discuss this seeming contradiction: exceptional service but low visibility. We're also lucky to have guidance from Mary Ann Brody and Suzanne Chapman of the U.S. Digital Service (USDS). As experts in design thinking and user experience, they'll help us integrate USDS best design practices to answer this question: How might we improve the process for discovering, locating, and visiting gravesites at NCA cemeteries?

Our diverse backgrounds provide us with different lenses through which to approach this challenge:

  • Athena is passionate about making meaningful changes in government and healthcare with technology. She previously worked for Booz Allen Hamilton and will be a Software Engineer Intern on Uber's autonomous vehicle team this summer. She's also co-founder of tech for social good group Coding it Forward, co-founder of health non-profit CHOICE, and partner at Dorm Room Fund.

  • Devyn comes from a background in local government and policymaking. She previously worked for the city of Columbus, Ohio, on public safety, sustainability, and community and economic development. She is a generalist with a passion for making government services more effective and for leveraging all available tools to help reach the hardest-to-reach members of our community.

  • Emily hails from a small town in northern England. She was previously a management consultant in the UK and Southeast Asia, with a focus on digital financial services. She is looking forward to bringing her experience of tech and innovation in the private sector to serve veterans and their families.

  • Keith brings the perspective of a veteran who served eight years as a Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician. Through his experience, he gained skills in general management, interpersonal dynamics, and operational planning. He is inspired to serve on this project because of his experience interacting with Goldstar families and losing friends in combat.

  • Yuko plays the role of internal organizer. As a former American History teacher at a public high school in New Orleans, she helped build a program that helps students change their behavior patterns instead of keeping them in detention. Her passion for creating commonsense solutions through the use of technology inspires her to serve on this project.

The Challenge. Over the next few weeks, we will interview veterans and their families across the Boston area, shadow visitors at NCA cemeteries, and speak to historians and researchers to create an experience that better meets users’ needs. The power in our diversity will propel our research and creativity to provide the best solution for our users.  

The NCA manages cemeteries, soldiers’ lots, and monument sites across the United States. Created in Google Maps with data from NCA.

The NCA manages cemeteries, soldiers’ lots, and monument sites across the United States. Created in Google Maps with data from NCA.










A long history, and a large scale. President Abraham Lincoln founded the NCA in 1862 after Congress authorized him to purchase grounds for use as national cemeteries during the Civil War. Before this, soldiers were buried where they fell. Today, the NCA:

Our team aims to complement and build upon the NCA's long-standing success.

Delivering a high standard of care. The NCA aims to provide a personal service and minimize any hoops people must jump through to get through an already-difficult process. That means no robocalls and people staffed at every site. Cemetery directors receive a yearlong training to learn exactly how NCA processes work, how to talk to families, and how to manage burial grounds in locales across the country. The sites they maintain are eternal shrines, and the NCA aims to deliver a sense of perpetual care. Any solution we develop must meet the level of care and integrity the NCA brings to its normal course of service delivery.

Navigability and accessibility. Over 4.8 million people visited VA national cemeteries in 2016. By using digital tools and reimagining the user experience, we aim to make the experience of visitors to burial sites more intuitive. Since the NCA serves a variety of users, each with unique needs, our team hopes to make veterans’ stories more accessible to all through the use of technology.

Diversity for Design. Our team is comprised of members with a multitude of life experiences and professional backgrounds. The power in our diversity will propel our research and creativity to provide the best solution for our users.  

Keith Caton, Athena Kan, Emily Middleton, Devyn Paros, Yuko Tanaka