Does Your Website Need a Presidential Pardon?

Posted on 03. Nov, 2013 by in Managing Experiences, Marketing Strategy

The Affordable Care Act’s website has needed more than one pardon from President Obama this week.  As internet-driven commerce has become a more important channel to all businesses, the design and build of websites has taken on critical importance.  And, when an enterprise’s primary channel is its website, the build becomes absolutely critical.  As the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) website became active on the first of October, we’ve all heard the problems a poor design and/or inadequate testing can visit on a service.

Only One Chance to Make a First Impression

Marketers understand the importance of first impressions.  The many failures of the Affordable Care Act’s website are prompting many Americans to become even less positive about the Act, itself.  As we know, with new products, consumers turn to every ‘input’ or piece of information they can find to help them evaluate the product/service itself.  That’s why we, in marketing, place so much importance on understanding and properly managing the total customer experience.

According to polls:

  • An Oct 17-20 Washington Post/ABC study found that 56 percent of Americans believe the website problems are related to bigger ones with the Act itself, while 40 percent view the website problems as isolated incidents.
  • Preceding the website going live there were more questions than answers on the Act among Americans.  A September Washington Post/ABC study found 62% of Americans saying they lacked the information they needed to understand the changes implemented by the ACA.

A Failure to Acknowledge the Customer Experience?

So why has our government gone live with such a poorly constructed website?  It may just be, that in their own political worlds in Washington, failing as some say to listen even to their own constituencies, that listening (or caring) for potential healthcare customers is an anathema.

In just one attempt to assuage disgruntled applicants, a frustrated President Obama, in a Rose Garden discussion, suggested that applicants experiencing problems bypass the website and use the toll-free number set up for the program.  Apparently the President was unaware that calls placed to the help line redirect callers back to the website!

A ‘Delivery Problem’

In another attempt to explain early failures, the President and others blamed the “overwhelming number of visits” the ACA site has received in its first three weeks of operation.  The total number of visits is estimated at 19 million or 900,000 a day.  Washington should have turned to Jeff Bezos at Amazon.  His website easily handles 149 million visitors a month (4.9 million a day) – that’s five and a half times more visitors than the Act’s website!

Other sources, in the know, say a conscious decision was made early on that’s primarily responsible for the long wait times applicants are experiencing.  Apparently some executives in the process decided that rushing applicants through to a pricing page would have created massive amounts of ‘sticker shock’…  And so, a whole application front-end was designed to collect sufficient information to allow the website to deduce if an applicant was eligible for any discounts or subsidies.  Then, the prices offered were hoped to be perceived as more ‘palatable’.  This qualification step has significantly slowed down the application process by requiring excessive amounts of information to be entered by applicants – way too soon in a customary application process.  The subsidy evaluation also makes the application process ‘clunky’ because the internal algorithms must review each applicant’s information and determine if discounts are applicable.

Construction costs, to date, have reportedly snowballed to more than $634 million against initial 2011 estimates of $94 million.  (As a point of comparison, Facebook operated for a full six years before exceeding $600 million in programming expenses; Twitter functioned quite well from 2006 to 2011 on a budget of $360 million.)  The ACA website would have been a very attractive assignment for many silicon valley programmers…but wait, no similarly-experienced programming companies were used!  Instead, the government turned to an unknown supplier, CGI Federal – a Canadian owned firm!  More familiarity with internet commerce might have been an advantage.  According to The New York Times and MSNBC the website’s programming consists of 500 million lines of code – approximately five times the amount of code in a typical major bank’s website!

And, as some experts have pointed out, with such substantial problems at enrollment, one can only wonder how robust the programming will be in handling day-to-day operations including: data transfer, correct billing, and accurate communication about federal subsidies.

So What Can You Learn From Obama Care’s Problems?

The ACA’s challenges with the new website call to mind several guidelines for introducing new websites or website designs that better address the total customer experience:

  1. Hire programming experts with direct experience in the field your website will compete in.
  2. Labor over your site’s structure, conforming it as much as possible to target user’s skills, needs and concerns.
  3. Discipline your information collection process to not require an inordinate amount of information to be demanded up front…allow the potential customer to gain some comfort with the site.
  4. Let target customers experience the site as a prototype.  Get them to express their feelings and reactions as they attempt to navigate through the site and make purchases.
  5. Test, test, and test.  You can never test a new site too much before going live.
  6. If possible, roll the system out gradually; don’t go ‘global’ your first day!



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