Dec 1, 2013

Usability in the Era of HealthCare.Gov

It is hard not to be frustrated at all of the glitches that have surfaced during the recent deployment of the US government's website.   Since the website was planned to play an integral role in making "Obamacare" a reality for a large segment of U.S. citizens, I assumed that strict attention to details would have been followed, from the initial conceptualization of the site until it was "ready" for the world.  

I was wrong. 

Maybe there was a miscommunication between the folks at CGI Federal, the company contracted to work on the website, and the project team, I don't know...

My guess is that there weren't enough people knowledgable about usability and user-centered design on the planning teams from the start.  Whatever the case, it seems like someone forgot to check the US government's very own Usability.Gov "Improving the User Experience" website!   


The wealth of information on the Usability.Gov  website been available for years - online, in books, and taught in a number of IT-related courses.  Usability is not limited to ease-of-navigation principles for websites and software user interfaces - a common mis-perception. It is an important component of user-centered software engineering and design, and more.  

In the following video, featured in the User-Centered Design (UCD) section of the Usability.Gov website,  it is noted that "at least 50% of a programmers' time during a project is spent doing rework that is avoidable."   Citing a 2005 study by IEEE, the narrator explains that the three top reasons for tech projects to fail are poorly defined requirements, poor communications, and stakeholder politics.   

So true for the website!

Was the Healthcare.Gov website doomed to fail, given all of the confusion and controversy surrounding the Affordable HealthCare Act from the start? 


So how can things be prevented?

If this is a topic that interests you - even if you aren't a developer, take the time to soak in some of the information from the Usability.Gov website to learn more about user-centered design, usability, and ways to prevent costly mistakes.  

If you are a computer science, software engineering, or preparing for a career that intersects with technology development or implementation in some way, plan to take a course or two that covers topics such as Human-Computer Interaction (HCI),  Human Factors, and User-Centered Design (UCD). 

Consider joining professional organizations, interest groups, or meet-ups if you are already working in the tech world, but lacking in up-to-date knowledge and skills in this area. 

Places to start:

ACM SIGCHI  - Association for Computing Machinery, Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction
Usability Professional's Association
IXDA - Interaction Design Association
HFES: Human Factors and Ergonomics Society
IEDO's Human-Centered Design Toolkit

Why Obama's launch was doomed to fail
Adrianne Jeffried, The Verge, 10/8/13
How we're working to improve  (Health Insurance Blog) contractors testify they warned of glitch risk before launch
Hari Sreenivasen, PBS Newshour Transcript
Health Care Site Rushing to Make Fixes by Sunday
Sharon LaFraniere, Eric Lipton and Ian Austen, NYT, 11/29/13
Software, Design Defects Cripple Health-Care Website
Christopher Weaver, Shira Ovide and Louise Radnofsky, WSJ, 10/6/13
Meet CGI Federal, the company behind the botched launch of
Lydia DePillis, 10/16/13
CGI Federal
Why Software Fails: We waste billions of dollars each year on entirely preventable mistakes
Robert N. Charette, IEEE Spectrum, 9/2/2005
The ROI of User Experience with Dr. Susan Weinschenk (Video 1/27/11)
Aquilent Proudly Supports "Re-Boot" to Further User Experience Best Practices"  Business Wire, 7/18/13Aquilent
Digital Government (

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