Condition Upgraded to Guarded but Stable

The website for the Health Insurance Marketplace portion of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,, 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:

Tell us if you're getting help

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.

You've told us another person

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.

from a certain point of view

From a certain point of view.

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 What has been your experience?

The Terrible, Awful, Calamitous, Democracy-Crushing Obamacare Website Rollout

Obama facepalm

Yesterday, President Obama acknowledged that stinks.

Not in so many words, of course. He said the site is “not working as well as it should,” according to CNN. His speech followed a blog post on the Health & Human Services site on Sunday saying pretty much the same thing and detailing the work going into fixing it.

For supporters of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – known colloquially as Obamacare first by detractors but later reclaimed by the President himself – the website rollout has been embarrassing. No, as Slate points out, a broken site doesn’t invalidate liberalism itself, but it does hand a free talking point to conservatives who claim that government can’t do anything right. woman

Any publicity is good publicity for stock photo models. She’ll land on her feet.

And yet, halfway through signing up for my own account last week, the process seemed to be going smoothly. Sure, the confirmation email to my Yahoo! account was shuffled into my spam folder, and even though the federal government surely has enough foresight and clout to suggest that email providers don’t block its addresses, ultimately that’s Yahoo!’s fault. Easily forgiven.

Sending me to a blank page instead of a promised eligibility report? That’s a little harder to swallow. null

Most browsers didn’t even get this far. Go open source!

A friendly customer service agent did try to help me over live chat, but didn’t inspire much confidence. She was able to walk me through turning off pop-up blockers in several browsers, but since the chat itself was happening in a pop-up window, I was pretty certain that wasn’t the issue. chat window

PROTIP: Pop-up windows and text boxes are allowed to be wide enough for the content they hold.

So my curiosity about health insurance options will have to wait. There’s been plenty of pontificating about how the tech sector would have supposedly done better setting up a portal like this. Like most big projects, the construction of was in fact contracted to an outside firm, but it still had to adhere to guidelines set up in the Affordable Care Act; there was no freedom to implement what worked first and innovate later.

There were undoubtedly unique challenges with such a large project and hard deadline. Still, many of the problems come down to sheer sloppiness. error message

PROTIP #2: Learn periods. And tenses.

It’s months before the individual mandate to have health insurance goes into effect. In the meantime, is getting fixed, and anyone can still apply by phone. Would I pick the federal government to design my startup’s website? No. But a stuttering unveiling does not a policy failure make. By incorporating user feedback and perhaps hiring some new developers, can still be useful.