19 Nov 2013

Healthcare.gov: The $174 Million Website Flop

It pains me to think there are people who design, build, and push out a website like Healthcare.gov that is a national disgrace and were paid well for it.

I know firsthand how contractors get away with billing state, local and federal government projects exaggerated fees and yet none of the people I’ve worked with on government sites would have delivered the nightmare that Healthcare.gov is.


Troubles with the Back End

Most of the attention and alarm is due to the backend performance side and the poorly designed application user interface. What this means is that the equipment used to support the web site failed to handle the job. So for example, when the news came out that it was time to fill out the forms to meet a specific deadline, the servers weren’t prepared for the enormous volume of people arriving to use the site. The result is pages don’t load or they take too long, people lose patience and leave.

Did they do performance testing? If this was done, somebody up the management food chain ignored their data. Sadly, this is not uncommon.

The performance of the software application side combines both the functional and user interface areas. Functional testing is sometimes referred to as software QA engineering and testing and it’s a very detail oriented, painstaking process. Its purpose is to make sure every action performed by a site user works smoothly and no errors appear. The user interface is tested along with functionality. The main goal is to be sure everyone understands how to use a form or online application. A poorly designed form creates more user errors, frustration, and page abandonment.


Steps to Confusion

While Congress spends more taxpayers’ money finding out what went wrong with Healthcare.gov, people are still trying to use it.  Let’s take a look at their experience.

Calls to action on homepage

Healthcare.gov homepage

I asked an audience in a recent talk which link they would choose to start the process.  The majority chose the big green “Apply Online” call to action button.  That is, until I pointed out the navigation link to “Get Insurance”.  Both links take visitors to the exact same page.

  • Did the designers not trust their own design so they needed to place alternative paths for an identical task?
  • Usability guidelines recommend being consistent with link labels.  A text version to “Apply Online” would have been preferred over “Get Insurance” so that it is understood in seconds this is the same task rather than two separate tasks.

The screenshot below used to be step two after clicking on “Apply Now”.  As you can see, nobody was going anywere anytime soon.

Step 2

Step Two to Apply

They have since changed it so that step two in the online application process looks like this for step two.

New step two

The improved step two.

If you scroll past the hoopla above the page fold, you get to apply online again or better yet, push the funky “Apply by Phone” button.
Repeated calls to action
Step three used to look like this.  The pre-selection process should have started on the homepage to provide a personalized task from the start.  By step 3, visitors still have not made any progress and have been offered little in the way of decision making assistance.

Step 3

The old step three

This is how they fixed this issue.

Step 3 revised

New step three

Wait.  We are at step three, which is really step one.  Or not, because according to these instructions, they will need to ask some questions needed to set up your account first and then you can apply online “move along to the Marketplace application”.

  • What in the name of spotted cows do those images mean?
  • Why does the call to action button repeat the heading?  Lazy.
  • Centered text is a known readability problem.
  • Seriously.  By now, do you TRUST this “Get Started” button?
  • Would it have been so difficult to use images of humans on this page?
  • WHAT BASIC QUESTIONS?  Do we need to go find any specific information that may be required by the application?
  • Where did they put the header with global navigation on the pre-registration page?

Clearly there was no user testing done before the website went live.  What are we expected to do with this?
Apply by phone button
I’d love to see members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee sit in front of Healthcare.gov on a computer, pretend to be a regular citizen making $40,000 a year or less, with at least a High School diploma or GED, and accessing the site from a public library.

As you can see, changes to the user interface are being applied. However, they continue to produce poor quality work. If any usability testing is being performed, whomever is doing it has no idea what they are doing.