President Obama himself has called it “unacceptable,” and many call it embarrassing. It has inspired material on everything from Saturday Night Light to the CMA Awards. In fact, the IT chief in charge of the project announced his resignation this week and the future career of the secretary of health and human services is also in question. Regardless of which side you fall on, it’s safe to say the rollout of The Affordable Care Act’s health exchange has been anything but smooth.

Amidst a government shutdown, millions of Americans flocked to the reportedly open-for-business exchange, hoping to find affordable coverage, only to leave empty handed and frustrated. Government officials are blaming the $40 million project’s unexpected traffic volume for much of the site’s malfunctions. I’ll direct you to SNL for my initial response; however as a communication professional I can’t help but believe there’s more to the site’s rollout failure than heavy traffic. I do realize the exchange involves highly complex software and is much more intricate than your average microsite or website, making the stakes and room for error that much higher. Fortunately, there are four key lessons we can learn from the ACA’s website flop that will hopefully help us avoid similar fallouts on a project of any size.

  1. Know Your Audience. When building a site, campaign, app, ad or press release for a specific audience, it’s important to design it with them in mind. A successful product aligns your audience’s desires with their needs and seeks to fulfill those. If I’m visiting the health exchange to potentially buy insurance for instance, my primary concerns are naturally: what do I get and for how much? More specifically, I want to know what is covered, what my out of pocket costs are and what’s my premium. Therefore, a site with me in mind would answer those questions quickly and without much effort. Oh contraire when it comes to HealthCare.gov!  Even if you take the “See Plans Now” route to browse before entering a slew of personal information, you’ll go through nine screens and six questions (if you make it that far without closing out) before seeing any kind of plan information. However, if you look at AARP’s Health Law Answers website which gives you a personalized report of how the Affordable Care Act will affect you, you are asked the same questions but the website provides an estimated time to complete the form, graphic representation, a navigation bar counting down to completion and an explanation for the information required on each page. Now that’s user-friendly!
  2. Test, Retest and Test Again. Have multiple people test the site on a variety of devices from tablets and iPhones to laptops and different sized monitors. Ask users to go through the whole experience from start to finish, clicking on every link, photo, tab and button, and don’t forget to test these 25 things before pressing go. Working through the kinks early will hopefully save you from dealing with credibility issues later. Ideally, you want to allow enough time for the piloting phase that if any issues arise, they can be addressed and fixed in time for launch. If time is running out, I’d argue that in the long run postponing your launch and rolling out a functioning site, is the better decision. Your audience is more likely to forgive tardiness… incompetence, not so much.
  3. Ensure Your Team Talks. With a project of this size, and even smaller ones, you are likely to have multiple people on a team working to bring a website to life. Experts range from creative designers and web developers to copy editors and project managers. And, if you don’t happen to have all of that talent in-house (give PadillaCRT a call!), you are likely bringing in talent from different companies, industries and even locations, all of which are likely working together for the first time. That is a busy kitchen! Ensure your team is communicating and working together as efficiently as possible. Have periodic check-ins with the whole team, include a representative from each project aspect in every meeting and keep each other updated. It’s always better to avoid the fire in the kitchen rather than having to put out the flames.
  4. Admit Your Shortcomings. Even after piloting, fixing glitches and covering your bases, if for some reason the site launches and failure ensues, admit it. Don’t start frantically defending the site, pointing out the positives or pushing the blame on anyone else. Take a cue from Kathleen Sebelius, admit you’re human and say how you plan to fix it. “I apologize,” she said. “I’m accountable to you for fixing these problems and I’m committed to earning your confidence back by fixing the site.” Twitter’s Fail Whale is infamous for this idea of humanly admitting failure, and they manage to add some humor much to the delight of their followers. Bottom line is, find the problems, prioritize the fixes, give a timeline and get to work; that’s all you can do. And, unlike Walmart, try to make the repairs as convenient and seamless for your users as possible, not punishing them for your website’s mistakes. The superstore giant recently experienced website glitches that led to highly discounted listings for electronics. Buyers of the items were notified that their purchases would not be honored but they would receive a $10 gift card; likely not what they were hoping for after snagging a $600 electronic for a mere $8.85.

HealthCare.gov is slowly rolling out improvements to make the site more user-friendly and effective. Don’t get me wrong, it has a ways to go, but only time will tell the true damage done by the failed rollout. As President Obama said, “the product is good,” but the way you package it can be just as important.

What lessons did you learn from the health exchange rollout? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

 

Image credit: Chattanooga Times Free Press