October 10, 2013 Back to All Blogs

What Your Organization Can Learn from HealthCare.gov’s Mistakes

It has been a rough start for HealthCare.gov.

A little over a week after launch, the site is still having some problems. At first, conventional wisdom pointed to sheer volume; over 2.5 million people visited the site within the first 24 hours. However, as the days went by and we were updated by bloggers, the Twitterverse, and traditional news outlets, it became clear that it wasn’t just an issue of server capacity – there were serious architectural and development issues within both the front-end and back-end coding.

While many critics have pointed to these issues as a sign of the program’s total failure, in reality, these problems can happen to any website, no matter how much press coverage and pressure they face. How can your organization avoid similar launch problems?

1.    Understand Your Audience – User experience is incredibly important. If your audience includes people who might need a larger font, make sure it is easy for them to enlarge the text. If you know your launch has been widely communicated, expect the unexpected when it comes to traffic. Like a party with no RSVP required, plan for uninvited guests. And the one thing all users have in common is that they want your site to work on the first try. The best way to spot-check your site is to ask “what if”. What if I want to see a specific date range? What if I need to have my spouse find a piece of information for me, but they’ve never used the site? Can I explain to them how to get there quickly and easily? Knowing what your users want – and when and how they’ll want it – before the launch will save hours of confusion for your visitors and precious time for you.

2.    Make Sure Developers Have the Access They Need – It’s clear that among the causes of HealthCare.gov’s problems are bottlenecks created by third-party systems. No large, integrated system like this one exists alone; “integrated” is a significant word. But in this case, some of the most important APIs that HealthCare.gov developers needed in order to make the integration work were stove-piped and unavailable to them. Developers can’t simply create in a black box and then hope all the pieces will integrate seamlessly when it comes together. When that happens, it usually leads to large problems like the ones we are seeing on HealthCare.gov. The communications disconnect during development helped cause both the ineffective launch and the problems that are keeping users out of the system. Do not hide mission-critical choke points from developers who need to work with them. Instead, make sure all parties communicate their needs to any and all other developer groups working on the project. This way, when you’re ready to test, the system can be tested as a whole instead of piecemeal, making it more likely for problems to be found early, rather than after the site is live.

3.    Don’t Skip Optimization, But Do It After Creation – We all want information, and we want it now: that’s what optimization helps you do. When you optimize code, you are removing unnecessary code and shortening the program to make the entire thing move more efficiently. You may be surprised to learn that, optimization can’t occur until after a website or application has been created. There are so many factors in flux during the creation; if you optimized during development, you’d never finish any tech project on time or within budget. It is important to ask about a company’s optimization process when hiring a developer and to budget both time and money for it.

4.    Minimize the Bells and Whistles – Keep it simple. Do you remember a time when landing on a webpage caused your computer to start blasting unwanted music or a quick flood of images would overwhelm you? While thankfully, that fad has passed, it raises a good point: don’t add anything unnecessary to your site. While you may think something is fun and interesting, it could end up slowing down and complicating the whole process for your visitors. This is where Kentucky did a great job. The site is clean looking and intuitive; nothing is excessive. When you plan for your own website, take the time to think about what you really want to add, what you think your users will need, and how much space you have to store all the data for your site. Once you have done this, then you might consider adding extras.

5.    Be Sure to Stress the Stress Tests – We really cannot say this one enough: test, re-test, and then test some again. In case you’ve missed it, you need to do all sorts of tests before you launch a website – especially if that site is supporting a major national program. This is the only way to know just how much your site can handle. Is there a possibility that you’ll have one million hits on the first day? Have you seen how your website handles a huge number of users at once? This sort of testing can get lost in the cracks because it happens when everything has been created and right before launch. While just before release is an exciting time for a project, it’s important for both clients and vendors alike to take a minute and double check the product. While your audience is excited, they’ll be more excited if your site works as it should.

Even after all this is said and done, you might still find problems your first week live. Certain functionalities might not work exactly the way you expected, someone will be confused by your site, and there will always be critics. That is just how things work when you’re creating something brand new. But taking these steps can lessen the problems associated with launch and get you to where you’re hoping to be faster and within budget. Learn from HealthCare.gov and take the necessary steps to make your launch a success.