Swords To Plowshares

Understanding the San Francisco veteran community and designing for inclusion and usability.


We were approached by Swords to Plowshares with a request to redesign their website to better serve the low income and homeless veteran population in San Francisco. 

They were keenly aware of issues of wayfinding on their site. Veterans can’t find the necessary support materials they need on Swords’ website. 

Additionally, they were acutely aware of a growing population of younger Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. These individuals grew up with the internet and are considered digital natives. While they can benefit from Sword’s services, they do not identify with the Vietnam era veterans Swords more often supports. When these younger vets walk into Swords’ drop-in center or visit Swords’ current website, this dissociation drives them away. 


1 week of contextual research into Swords to Plowshares’ users.

1 ½ week of website design and usability testing.


1 UX Researcher

+ 2 UX Designers

I led on user research, user interviews, defining the target user, prototyping, and usability testing.


To deliver actionable insights about Swords to Plowshares’ veteran population to our UX designers.

Presenting our final designs to our clients.

My Approach

Research methods:



Affinity Mapping

User Testing

Client Management

I built my research plan around rapid contextual inquiry to gather insights about how veteran users and service providers interact with the website. Additionally, I needed to learn how our clients interact with the website.

I decided to approach the research with the understanding that the problems Swords had identified themselves were likely skewed. I accounted for that bias as I was building my research plan which included extensive contextual interviews, user testing, and comparative research. 

Through these interviews and in observing user tests of the current site, I was able to get a sense of who our target user is and how they process digital information. Finally, there is a wealth of information and public documentation around the Veterans Benefits Administration’s recent website redesign, which was instrumental in framing my research.

Who Did I Talk To?

I was lucky to be able to speak with a myriad of individuals within the Swords to Plowshares organization, including:

  • Frontline associates

  • Case managers

  • Program directors

  • Legal services managers

  • Housing services managers

  • Information technology

  • Veteran advocacy and policy team

  • Communications team

I was also able to interview—and test the current site with—a veteran client. This person was a joy to interact with and really helped our design team empathize with their personal struggles.


Understanding the Scope

Not only was my discovery work focused on better understanding the veteran users, but also on identifying Swords to Plowshares’ implementation capabilities. I was aiming to deliver the most bang for their buck!

Through our conversations, I discovered that my clients had only one web developer and a site built in Wordpress. I also learned that the current web development process included creating each new page virtually from scratch. 

With these insights, I knew that our clients would value templatized designs that could be easily duplicated for multiple instances. It was understood that developing multiple templates would front-load the work for their developer, but taking this approach would result in a significantly reduced workload after the initial development. 


What Did I Hear?


User Insights

Empathy Mapping

Comparative Analysis

Content Analysis

Swords is “‘the reason why there is a roof over my head.’”


“If I need rent… if I needed first and last... they always take care of me.”

Veterans “still have a place here… They are still human, still people, regardless of whatever walks of life they come from.”

“To be a place where people can come to get treated like a human being and restore that dignity… has value in and of itself.” 

More than anything else, I had an epiphany in conversation with the veteran client. After nearly 5 hours of interviews with Swords’ employees and staff—hearing all about their housing, legal and health support programs—I learned about one of their most popular programs.


Their mailroom. 

An incredibly simple service where low income and homeless vets can use Swords’ office as their permanent address, the mailroom at Swords to Plowshares serves over 500 vets daily. This service acts as an anchor for in-need vets—an essential and basic necessity—yet it is completely absent from the Swords website currently. This moment, more than any other, epitomized the incredible service and value Swords brings to their community. 


Analysis Methods

I used affinity and empathy mapping techniques to identify user insights in our qualitative data. Through comparative analysis, I was able to derive inspiration for my design team. And through content analysis, I was able to deliver actionable content suggestions to my design team and clients.

Affinity mapping helped our team understand what services provide the most value for the clients and find pain points in those services.


  • Rising housing prices in SF creating a difficult landscape for low-income vets. 

  • Military discharge creating issues with their VA eligibility. 

  • Mental health diagnosis(es) creating issues with VA eligibility.


  • Suffering from issues related to substance abuse. 

  • Attempting to get support from Swords, VA, sheltors, etc—anywhere that can help.

  • Behind on rent or bills. 

Empathy mapping helped us identify how a user is experiencing interactions with Swords, especially in times of personal crisis.


  • Confused about eligibility for VA benefits and Swords to Plowshares’ services.

  • Struggle with PTSD and other mental health issues associated with homelessness.

  • Don’t know they are eligible for VA Benefits.


  • Currently—or on the edge of—experiencing homelessness. 

  • Feelings of isolation, otherness, and a lack of interpersonal or familial support. 

  • In desperate need of assistance before hitting rock bottom. 

  • Younger digital native vets don’t identify with Swords’ clientele.

I also drew inspiration and comparison to the VA website and Planned Parenthood. Particularly focusing on the way they guide users to self identify on their homepage. 

Through content readability analysis via the Hemingway App, it became apparent that the content on Swords’ website was not appropriately serving their target user.

All of this helped fine-tune my team’s focus for the rest of the project. We were able to identify one core concept that we thought could really make a difference for Swords. 

When a potential client visits Swords online, they need to be immediately presented with the services that can help them.


Influencing Design

These insights helped us make design decisions that were rooted in an empathetic understanding of our users and our clients.

After building a prototype for this new website design in Figma, I was able to gather participants for usability testing. This testing proved that the new web design was significantly clearer and easier to navigate. 

Big bold callouts help users self identify early in the user flow and get the content or information they need sooner.

Clear call to action buttons allow users to know exactly what information they are going to see. Additionally, we pulled the three most impactful and highly trafficked sections of the website to feature here.

By adding a specific section for service providers to self identify at the bottom of the home page, Swords’ staff can more clearly direct their volunteers to the information they need on the site.

Learning Moments


This project is still in progress. I am working with Swords on implementation and content strategy for their site. We are aiming to see this design go live by September 2019. 

Biggest Takeaway?

Be open to discovery

It wasn’t until I was sitting across the table from our potential user that I realized how deep a personal connection Swords makes with their clients and how critical that was to our website design.

Like what you see?

Let's chat!

Email me here or call me at 503.442.9967

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© 2019 by Ted Schaller.