The website for the Health Insurance Marketplace portion of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, HealthCare.gov, has been receiving much-needed improvements since it was launched on October 1. A better experience was promised after November 30 – and for the most part, it’s been achieved.
For the most part.
I experienced my own struggles with the site in October. By restricting the number of active users, the developers have prevented most of the crashing and molasses-like slowness that plagued the portal in its infancy. The worst problems seem to have been solved; I haven’t seen any disconnections or half-loaded pages this time around, and although filling out an entirely new application was necessary, I did finally get to view an eligibility report. Even better, the report was ready within seconds of submitting my new application.
Indeed, removing my “problem application” is one tool that is promoted in a Tuesday blog entry on the site. Other new features include ”More robust window shopping,” allowing a quick glance at available plans, and online continuation of applications begun over the phone or with paper forms, using an application identification number. Even these tools aren’t perfect – the window shopping shows full retail pricing without any subsidies for which one might be eligible and the problem application removal tool confusingly gives “Cancel” and “Reset” options in a pop-up confirmation box – but these are usability issues rather than basic functionality.
Usability is important, though. Optimizing the user experience (UX) is common practice – though, admittedly, often neglected – in software development. Establishing “Remove” or “Reset” as the term for tossing a previous application in the trash and using that term consistently helps ease users through a complex process. Choosing health insurance has never been a piece of cake, so care really should be taken to avoid introducing anything that makes you go “Huh?” Take this little step in the application:
Simple enough, right? The lack of punctuation is mildly upsetting, but most people probably aren’t bothered by that. When the very next step contradicts my selection, though, that’s a problem.
What? No. That’s not what I told you at all. I … okay, reading the previous step again, I realize I was never given the option to say that NO ONE is helping me, just none of the specific people you mentioned. So it’s possible to interpret that statement in blue as being correct. Sort of. Technically.
A more grievous issue came in the “Review & Submit” portion of the application. If I chose to edit one piece of information I’d entered, I had to click through every subsequent screen again. No quick adjustment of one little thing, no sir. At least all the information was still there and I didn’t have to fill it out another time.
All the niggling little quirks point to a project that just didn’t take UX details seriously enough. Performing triage on site performance was unquestionably more important than correcting grammar, and hardly any major software or web site is perfect in that regard, but I do hope clarity and consistency are refined as further improvements are made.
Have you used HealthCare.gov? What has been your experience?
It all started with a misbehaving wireless connection. Every now and then, I was told, the connection would just drop and resume a few minutes later. A couple firmware updates and date/time adjustments later, the router still wouldn’t provide consistent signal. Fair enough; it was so old that it didn’t even have “2013″ as an option in its “Year” dropdown menu. Time for a new router!
Unfortunately, new hardware came with new problems: rather than cutting out unexpectedly, this router just wouldn’t connect with one particular laptop. Its maddeningly simplistic setup instructions worked, sort of, on a convenient smartphone, but the only thing that got the laptop connected was totally disabling all security on the router, and that wasn’t a permanent option. Back to the store it went.
You might notice that the brand and model of the offending router were not disclosed in the previous paragraph. That’s because it was not, in the end, at fault. Oops.
For the next router setup, I wanted to be prepared. Was the problem the laptop? Was it the router? Was it a localized distortion in the space-time continuum? The answer would come with more data, and more data would come with more devices.
The final inventory was something like this:
- Three Windows laptops
- One MacBook Air
- Two Android smartphones
- One Android tablet
- One iPad
- One Nintendo DSi
- One Roku
- Four wireless routers
By connecting and disconnecting each device to various routers, I came to the inescapable conclusion: that one laptop was messed up. I’d previously changed its wireless driver to one available on the manufacturer’s site, but a newer one was available through Windows Update. That, and also possibly upgrading Internet Explorer from version 7 to version 9, finally got the thing connected.
(For all you browser evangelists out there, IE wasn’t current because it was never used. Logically it shouldn’t make a difference to the network connection itself what version of a browser is installed, but we all know how deeply IE hooks into the Windows operating system.)
Any home networking horror stories to share?
As a fully indoctrinated member of consumer society (marketing ID# C86HCBA9D2GH), it’s my gleeful duty every year to participate in Black Friday. This glorious event is characterized by hordes of shoppers flitting between retail stores hours before anyone has any business being awake on a freezing November morning with the slim hope of giving money to giant corporations in exchange for slightly better products than that amount might ordinarily buy.
A popular, though incorrect, explanation for the origin of the name “Black Friday” claims that it is the day of the year on which retailers finally start earning a profit, using black instead of red ink in their ledgers. The competition for business that day is fierce, because the troublesome holiday of Thanksgiving is at last behind Americans and they begin vigorous Christmas shopping. Capturing shoppers that first day has required an escalating crush of discounts, advertising, and incentives to visit one store over another.
One incentive is opening time. The earlier a store can open, the thinking goes, the more eager shoppers it can attract. Normal 10:00 am, 9:00 am, 8:00 am openings are discarded; 7:00 am is a late start, 6:00 am is for the lightweights, 5:00 am marks the the true faithful, and 4:00 am, normally reserved for amateur astronomers and regretful lovers, is prime time. In recent years some stores even began opening at midnight.
The brinkmanship has only increased with the latest gambit. If folks are staying up until midnight just to technically shop on a day that isn’t a federal holiday, wouldn’t it be more humane to get over the stigma of “interrupting family time” “leaving just one freaking day free of commercialism” and and open at, say, 10:00 pm Thursday?
Extend that reasoning, and you have the current situation: more stores beginning sales on Thanksgiving Day than on Black Friday. Some open all day.
Now, granted, some of those stores are online only; it just takes electricity to accept your order. Shipment might not happen for hours. For genuine gratification of your antihistamine gift-giving needs first thing Thanksgiving morning, visiting a Walgreens or CVS is necessary. Meanwhile, across the street, Rite Aid makes you stand outside for another 23 hours while its employees selfishly sit around dinner tables.
This year, forsake your families. Forgo the feasting, conversation, and expressions of gratitude. After all, what use is giving thanks if we don’t rapaciously pursue the stuff we want? Support the retailers who enable the true pastime of our nation, every day of the year: SHOPPING.
It’s likely that I don’t see all the same fads pop up on Facebook as everyone else; such is the nature of personalized content. But a few have broken through in recent weeks to become genuine hits, and with the exception of an extremely stupid giraffe thing that doesn’t know how plurals work, they all have one thing in common: they’re about you.
The most complex and visually-oriented of the recent fads, Bitstrips places you and your friends in allegedly comic situations. There are plenty of pre-made hilarious hijinks into which you can insert yourself, but the amount of customization available is pretty impressive. It took a good twenty minutes to construct my avatar, picking eyebrow shapes and skin tones and clothing. A photo-scanning algorithm was presumably beyond the developers, or they just thought that users would enjoy inspecting their own faces in order to create a reasonable simulacrum.
Your character’s body and facial expressions, along with one or two other situational details, can be manipulated within each cartoon. Presumably the real fun starts when you force your friends, also using the Bitstrips app, into compromising positions. I wouldn’t know.
Using Bitstrips on Facebook requires you to “Like” an app and give it permission to post on your behalf. There are also Android and iOS apps.
What Would I Say?
The What Would I Say web application started life as a quick project at a Princeton hackathon, but went viral so quickly that my ISP couldn’t even find the site by the time its took over my news feed. (See, domain names, the .com things typed into browsers or clicked via hyperlinks, really point to numerical IP addresses and ports and hosting providers, and it takes a bit of time for the whole Internet to be told about new ones. Note to Comcast: update your DNS servers more frequently. That’s kind of embarrassing.)
The app scoops up a portion of your Facebook posting history, slices and dices it into pieces, and then more or less randomly re-combines those pieces. This process results in mostly nonsensical pronouncements that use words and phrases you’ve used in the past, but with no regard for grammar, punctuation, or meaning. It’s a dumb little bot saying dumb little things that occasionally produces stunning poetic truths. It might or might not reveal what you actually think about any given subject.
What Would I Say claims it never sees or saves your posts, and that everything is done “client side” in your browser. It can also remix “celebrity” posts, meaning anyone with a Facebook Page (rather than just a regular profile).
X Things About Me You Might Not Know
With no supporting app, this status update template could just as easily be a chain letter. You get a number from a friend and you have to write that many little-known factoids about yourself. You can then demand that friends who Like your revelatory list do the same, with a number you provide.
Me, Me, Me
All these fads tap into the core feature of social media: users talking about themselves, while explicitly or implicitly inviting friends to talk about themselves. The methods use more or less computerized assistance to enable our collective narcissism or introspection, but ultimately come down to the fact that we’re all pretty interested in our own stories. Are our friends as interested? Depends on the friends and the stories.
Do you participate in fads like these? Do you find them annoying? Are you confused or relieved I didn’t call them “memes”? Let’s talk about ourselves a bit.
Having recently been freed from my two-year cell phone contract, I’ve been casting about for a new provider and new
smartphone pocket computer with incidental voice communication function. I don’t talk out of my mouth hole all that much, see, so paying for unlimited minutes seems like a waste. Even my data allowance need not be huge, as I’m usually within the loving embrace of a familiar WiFi signal.
My money is best spent, then, on a powerhouse of a device, with plenty of processing speed and memory and fancy features. I prefer Android; a good camera is a must; and it must be small enough to fit into the side pocket of all the carpenter jeans in which I’ve invested. And because I don’t want another contract, an “unlocked” phone compatible with my chosen network is essential.
To compare smartphones, a bevy of websites are available, each with their own positive and negative aspects. Of course there are your favorite shopping sites and price comparison engines, but they tend to have a bias toward the same phones available at the major carriers’ own sites. For unlocked phones, specialty sites are the place to go.
Depending on your level of patience with tickboxes and dropdown menus, WhistleOut, PhoneScoop, PhoneArena, or GSMArena should point you toward reasonable candidates. WhistleOut and PhoneScoop let you compare the copious details of five phones side by side; PhoneArena is limited to three. GSMArena does have a compare feature, but not accessible directly from the results of your search and only for two phones at a time.
If you just want to pick from prominent phones, Geekaphone is your prettiest option. With giant pictures, room for five models, and a few benchmarks expressed in graph form, it’s almost fit for posterization. On the other hand, Compare Cell Phones spells out the advantages of each of two models in a compact list.
The real masterpiece, however, is Versus. Like Compare Cell Phones, it provides superior aspects for each of two devices – and not limited to just cell phones. It mostly focuses on consumer electronics (cameras, game consoles, televisions, etc.) with some appliances like washing machines thrown in, but also includes cities. And mad, brilliant genius that it is, Versus allows cross-category comparisons. How else would I learn that the Roomba 660 vacuum cleaner is better than the Xbox One because it’s 3mm narrower and “Doesn’t get stuck”, to say nothing of the dirt and anti-fall sensors? Then again, the Roomba has no HDMI port nor Blu-ray capability.
The only thing holding Versus back – and yet making it even more entertaining – is the quality control on its information. In the perennial (yet largely one-sided) rivalry between Boston and New York, for example, I’d be surprised if only 17.03 percent of the Big Apple’s residents used Facebook, and I’d be utterly astonished if 155.29 percent of Beantown’s inhabitants did so. (The higher number is the favored one in this case, subjective a decision as it may be.) Likewise, while Boston was indeed first to debut a bike-sharing system, New York does have one of its own now, and they’re even learning from each other. The site also claims that New York has public health care while Boston does not, and that New York sports five airports of unspecified type to Boston’s three with only “Wikipedia” as a source.
In addition, both cities get a point in their favor just for having a gender ratio. Both lean slightly female, but New York’s 52.51 percent proportion is greater than Boston’s 50.8 percent. In Versus’s words, “There’s an oversupply of female population which can be good for single men.” Nice, objectification and heteronormativity. The opposite is said of Boston, with its 49.2 percent men as opposed to New York’s 47.49 percent. Versus also awards wins for higher population (but lower population density), legal gambling, a greater number of international headquarters and think tanks, and cheaper Big Macs.
Finally, I’d like to offer a hat tip to Prepaid Phone News, which was invaluable in narrowing down my cheap(ish) mobile phone service plan options. It offers basic information like coverage and price as well as arcane data like carrier radio frequencies that can turn out to be quite important when comparing phones.
If you’ve been watching the first couple episodes of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., you might have noticed a few superficial similarities to a certain BBC show called Torchwood. Don’t sweat it, I’m here to help.
Social media is fragmented. No one site fulfills every sharing need, especially since friends and followers often differ between them. There are several services that allow you to share something on all your networks, and even schedule posts in advance; one of the biggest is HootSuite. Write once, post everywhere.
It’s great – if you want your posts on the various social networks to be identical. If all you’re posting is text, that’s fine. Heck, even if you’re using hashtags, Facebook finally implemented those a few months ago.
But other content isn’t so straightforward. The format for tagging fellow users is different on each network, as is the local lingo. Character restrictions also vary. In these days of optimizing content for its particular platform, no single application makes it possible to publish subtly different posts to multiple social networks without composing and sending multiple separate posts in the first place.
A few small changes to the HootSuite interface would make a huge difference in this regard. But I only start with HootSuite because it’s familiar to me; if any other service decided to make these improvements, I’d switch to them in a second.
In my proposed interface, a text box is visible for each social network the post is going to. I considered having a “master” text box that wouldn’t connect to any social network and only serve as the source for the other boxes, but that seemed wasteful – the user can choose any box and copy from there. The actual editing could happen a few ways:
- Manual copy and paste from one box to another
- Automatic typing in all boxes at once
- A “Copy to All” button (shown)
In my opinion, the first option is tedious, and the second has the potential for confusion. Your mileage may vary.
The checkboxes up top allow the interface to edit your posts automatically to reflect the subtleties of each social network. You don’t retweet (RT) posts on Facebook or Google+ or LinkedIn or … anywhere but Twitter, actually, so “RT” is automatically changed to “Share”. (Perhaps additional logic could be built in so that “Windows RT” and similar phrases are never changed.) The changed words should maybe be highlighted so you see instantly what’s been altered.
In a probably more challenging programming hurdle, tagging is automatically adjusted as well, so that a valid link for each social network is created. Hovering over the link would show a preview of that Twitter, Facebook, etc. profile. I’m not the only one irritated by @usernames in plain text posts outside Twitter, am I? In any case, each text box is fully editable so further changes can be made, if desired.
The social network icons and character counters are moved to each box for obvious reasons. The link, attachment, scheduling, location, and privacy controls are duplicated on the bottom so that any of those attributes can be added individually to each social network or to all of them at once.
Posting everywhere from a single form, combined with scheduling, is already a luxury. Making it simple or even automatic to optimize content formatting is icing on the cake – that will drive mounds of users to whomever implements it first.
@CitizenjaQ Great suggestion, thanks so much John! :) -Carolyn
— Buffer (@buffer) September 23, 2013
A puppy for every user would also be nice.
Since Coldplay has a new song and music video out this week (“Atlas” from the Catching Fire soundtrack), I figured this post was finally vaguely relevant. It’s a problem affecting an extremely limited number of people, I realize, but just in case you:
- own both Viva la Vida and Prospekt’s March, the 2008 LP and EP from Coldplay;
- feel the need to listen to both of them together without repetition;
- still use compact discs; and
- have not solved this problem for yourself in the five years you’ve had to do so;
I am here to help.
The screenshot below shows a track listing in the program CDBurnerXP. Tracks 5 and 6 were separated using Audacity, as were tracks 7 and 8 as well as 18 and 19. Doing so is optional, but it bugs me when songs do not perfectly correlate to tracks. (I left 16 as it was because there’s no point of silence to split the track, and “Poppyfields” is pretty much only 30 seconds of synthy woo-woo sounds anyhow.)
You might notice that two tracks from Prospekt’s March are entirely missing; this is ostensibly because the full runtime of all the songs on both collections adds up to 74:04, and standard audio CDs don’t go past 74 minutes flat. However, the missing tracks are just a virtually identical remix of “Lovers in Japan” and a terrible, terrible version of “Lost!” featuring one Jay-Z. Seriously guys, the “feat. [some rapper]” addendum is never a good idea. And although increasing the tempo of “Lovers in Japan” by approximately one beat per minute for the “Osaka Sun Remix” gives it an utterly different sound, I’m not sure I can bear the transcendence of lines like “Soldiers, you’ve got to soldier on” more than once in 66 minutes.
I wish I could share an ISO of the disc with convenient, cutting-edge features like CD-TEXT tagging, but you know, that would be illegal. This Grooveshark playlist should be slightly less so.
Thanks to Everywhere Art for demarcating the areas of Eugene Delacroix paintings used on the album covers in question.
This weekend marks possibly the most significant anniversary in the history of historicity itself. I hope you’ll share this infographic to celebrate with me.
For the purposes of this infographic, the recent reboot movies are grouped with the original series. Both “The Cage” and “The Menagerie” are included in the episode and minute totals for the original series as well, but Generations is counted as a fully Next Generation movie.