As Congress investigates what went wrong with the introduction of HealthCare.gov, it's clear that the online health insurance marketplace has a variety of troubles, including accurate data collection and storage.
But let's focus on one problem that was, sadly, avoidable: the user experience. Putting all politics aside for a moment, some simple tactics in development, design and planning could have helped minimize the risks to the high-stakes rollout.
I've read a lot about the issues that ensued instead, but the best knowledge is always first-hand -- so I did a test drive myself. I found signs of many missteps, but most could be consolidated under five key points, applicable to brands building websites just as much as the government:
You Need a Captain
October 2011. That's when the government began subcontracting out development work for the website. Guess how many organizations this project was ultimately subcontracted to? 47.
With that many subcontractors, how could the government know at any given point who was working on the site and who was ultimately responsible for the overall user experience?
Any brand that's building a large site will have multiple departments, people and potentially companies working on it, but you need to make sure you have a UX captain that is all along ensuring the testing and usability of the site. If you don't, you will fail. No blurred lines there. Your UX captain can actually serve as the connective tissue from concept through development and launch. Use them. That's what they're there for.
Estimate Initial Demand But Prepare for 10 Times More
U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park says the government expected 50,000 to 60,000 simultaneous users on Healthcare.gov at any given time and prepared for that. What happened? As many as 250,000 users tried to sign on at once.
It wouldn't have only been good for the rollout to prepare for bigger numbers, however: If you're building a site with a stated goal of "7 million users," scalability and capacity are critical in any case. If consumers can't get in, they might not come back.
Don't Scare Them with Commitment Language Right Out of the Gate
For those who can access the site, these words on the homepage are the largest calls to action. My guess is users want a little more information before committing to an application. Something as simple as "Learn More and Apply" may ease the experience for the user coming here for the first time and keep them moving through the process.
Once a user is trying to do something, however, avoid unnecessary distractions.
When I got to the HealthCare.gov, I decided I wanted more information on Individuals and Families. It took me through this series of pages before I could finally take the action I wanted to take:
Great -- I was interested in "Individuals and Family" -- so I clicked on that in the tabs.
OK, I wanted to apply online, so I clicked on that green button.
Hmm … Now it seemed like I should click on this new big green button to really get started. That then routed me to a state Health Connector site, which needed yet more clicks -- including to say, again, that I was an individual -- before I could start filling out a form.
I was only able to get that far because I was able to figure it out and not lose hope along the way. The average user will not get past those first clicks. Healthcare.gov, why are you making me click so many times? Why can't you just take me to this page immediately?
Test Early and Rapidly
Even if you only have sketches, testing makes a difference. The smallest tweaks and enhancements can make or break your site. You don't have to test a gazillion people either. You will begin to see trends after five to seven users. Do it. Do it often. You won't be sorry.
And don't save your comprehensive testing until two weeks out.
Here's another report from this week:
"Sources tell CBS News the underlying software was riddled with junk computer code, which means, one expert said, 'No way it was properly tested before it went live.'"
I rest my case.
Launching a website at this scale is no simple feat, and there are bound to be hiccups along the way. But some simple UX guardrails can help keep things more or less on course. Now, go find your UX person ASAP -- if he or she hasn't just been recruited by the repair team at Healthcare.gov.