HealthCare.gov – How Not To Design A Website

In the overwhelming majority of design cases, it’s considered good practice to approach writing an article from a positive standpoint, not a negative one. But there are time when knowing what NOT to do can be a very valuable teaching experience.

So, with apologies to the whole “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative” crowd, here’s what went wrong with the healthcare.gov website. Mark these mistakes well, and make sure not to repeat them when designing your own site.

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Two Different Cooks

Are you aware that the HealthCare.gov’s front-end static website and the back-end servers were developed by two different contractors? Not only that, it appears that they didn’t communicate with each other very much or co-ordinate their efforts. When you have two separate entities responsible for different design elements of one product, there needs to be cooperation and open lines of communication.

A Lack Of Sufficient Testing

This goes hand-in-hand with a lack of communication. If the government website had been sufficiently tested, there’s no way that the problems encountered by so many people would have managed to slip through. Even if both developers tested their own code, it’s become painfully apparent that they overlooked testing to see if their code worked with the other developer’s code. Oops, that’s a design mistake you don’t want to make!

Design Inconsistency Leads To Stupid Mistakes

Although the site’s front end had drawn much praise for looking good, there were mistakes that come right from some amateur kid’s first shot at designing a website. Take user name and password standards, for example. Users needed to make sure they used at least one number when they came up with a user name; a fact that the user interface neglected to mention. Again, didn’t they test this thing?

Terrible Logical Flow

If you wanted to get a health insurance quote from the site, you had to create a login name, and generate a number of secret questions. All of this effort, just to visit and get a quote for something you may end up not even taking advantage of. The whole process of registering, logging in, and filling in data was woefully inefficient and cumbersome.

Speaking of inefficient, the site also asked for way too much information. For instance, if you were trying to create a login for the purposes of checking out insurance for you and your family, you had to identify your spouse, your children, your children’s relationship to you, your wife, and to each other. Why was this even necessary?

Underestimating Traffic

While it can be somewhat understandable that, given the level and intensity of opposition to the Affordable Care Act, some people in charge would think that the website wouldn’t be popular and consequently not generate much traffic, it sort of misses the whole point of the ACA to begin with; there are a LOT of insured people in America, and they want to change that!

As a result, the traffic overwhelmed the site, causing numerous crashes and freezes. Response time dropped, people kept getting kicked off, and overall it was a huge mess and a public relations disaster, something especially nasty since there are so many critics out there that will seize on anything that they believed reinforced their position.

When designing a website, the site’s owners need to take into account the possibility of heavy traffic volume, especially when the business offers promotions and other deals, and in particular during the last few hours of the events in question; procrastinators can really break a system, as the government found out.

A Cautionary Tale

When you couple the traffic issues with the problems of bad flow and the inability of the front and back end to mesh smoothly, it’s easy to see why things were such a spectacular mess. The thing to remember is that multiple flaws create an exponentially bad experience, as each wrong thing exacerbates the unique problems that each error creates. Don’t let this happen to your design; learn from the high-profile mistakes of others!

And incidentally, if you find yourself in the position of needing to visit Healthcare.gov for insurance, read “Four Tips For A Smooth Experience On Healthcare.Gov” first.

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Born and raised in the Boston area, I was rocketed to New Hampshire, where under the Granite State's yellow sun and lack of income tax, I have gained the powers of super-sarcasm, brilliant creativity, and slightly disturbing sense of humor.

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