Why the Design Fails on HealthCare.Gov

November 14, 2013 | Design Basics, Design Trends, Web Design

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I’m writing about the HealthCare.gov web site again. Hey, it’s not often that a web site gets so much media attention!

Most of the news stories have focused (rightly so) on the functionality of the web site for learning about and applying for health coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

Imagine (if you can), that the application itself was flawless, and concentrate on the design. Unfortunately, the design is causing its own problems.

HealthCare.gov web site design

You may want to go to the live site to understand this post: HealthCare.gov

Here is a screen shot of the web site as it looks today. There is nothing ugly or hard to read. Yet, it still has major design flaws. This design review is not about “making it pretty” it’s about helping the user accomplish what they want to do.

Redundancy and confusion

For example, there are three common visual tools used to get someone to apply by phone (see screen shot below):

  • a button
  • a graphic symbol
  • the listing of the phone number.
HealthCare.Gov encourages you to Apply by Phone

HealthCare.Gov encourages you to Apply by Phone (click to expand)

But none of these directly gets you to apply by phone. Even on the mobile version, the 1-800 number, when clicked, sends you to the contact page, rather than asking you if you want to call the number.

Where are you leading people?

In the next screen shot, we see that two different messages both send you to the same page.

The graphic of the paper includes a tool tip that comes on when you hover over it. The tool tip says “apply by paper.” I would expect to be directed to a PDF to download and fill out.

In the bottom scroller of text boxes, you can “See 4 ways you can apply…” Yet both of these links send you to the “how do I apply page”.

Links to the How to Apply page.

Links to the How to Apply page. (Click to expand)

This is confusing. The “apply by paper” icon is already a sub-item of the 4 ways you can apply. So someone clicking on the paper link should get direct information and links to that information. Instead, they are essentially back at the top of that decision sequence of choosing one of the 4 ways to apply.

What options (calls to action) should be highlighted

I think there is nearly universal consensus that the steps Americans will take to enroll will be:

  1. Learn about the options
  2. Apply for coverage

That choice should be the most clear first step when someone arrives at the home page.

The first choice of where to go should be Learn or Get Insurance.

The first choice of where to go should be Learn or Get Insurance. (Click to expand)

This site is unique because this 2-step process is an understood typical path around the site. Many corporate web sites, by contrast, lack a consistent and clear path for visitors. Although this is known the web site does a poor job in helping to direct people down the right path.

Poor navigational design is making the site hard to use

The problem with the design is that there are too many options and there is not a clear hierarchy of how these choices fit into the learning and buying part of the process.

“Learn” and “Get Insurance” are top level navigational items, yet they are lost in the sea of other buttons, graphics and other call outs. We’ve all seen hundreds—no hundreds of thousands—of web sites with horizontal bands of navigation. This is where a lot of “clicking” normally happens. But in this case, you actually start the process on what navigationally looks like a subpage. The navigational bar indicates that you are already in the “learn” area.

Add a home button

This is a case where having a “home” button should be used. I don’t always think home buttons are necessary on web sites, but this site is for millions of Americans, for goodness sakes, let’s make it easy.

It also would then make it clear when you have moved into the “learn” area vs the “apply” area.

There is a lot of worry among Americans about getting enrolled in something they don’t want. Make it clear when they are seeing the educational part of the content, and when they are actually applying for coverage.

Make the common path easy to follow

As I mentioned above, most people will follow a similar path of what type of action they want from the site. First is educational, the second is applying. Things like numbering steps, or outlining the process visually or using tabs would clarify this.

Instead, they’ve confused things by trying every design trick in the book: navigation, buttons, graphics, scrolling text boxes, and more.

One comment

  1. Suzi Gillette | November 15, 2013 at 12:22 am

    Emily, good insight. To bad you didn’t design their website. You did great with our site!

    Suzi’s Tea

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