Not Innovation…Not Even Close

The Affordable Care Act might represent an innovative approach to health insurance, but the federal website that provides the entry point is surely not.

Healthcare.gov has its nice touches. It has a clean design, sharp fonts, and clear language (mostly). On the other hand, there are unforgivable problems. First of all, the underlying database appears to be unreliable. Sometimes—enough so that I know it wasn’t me—I had to answer the same question multiple times, since the database either failed to store my original answer, or the form I was editing failed to display the edited answer.

Sometime later, after I had exited with the application partially filled, I returned to find that half of my work was gone. Later still, I received an email telling me that there was a message for me, and to log in to retrieve it. I logged in, but there is no place to pick up any kind of message. These are not high-traffic issues; these are programming mistakes.

The biggest problem is this: the understandably-linear nature of the initial application is retained even when editing the answers later. The result is this: if you make a change to an early question, the system steps you back through all the questions that follow it. When I did this, Most of my previous answers were retained and I had only to click “Save and Continue.” But why did I have to do even that? I understand that some questions have dependencies, but the system should be programmed to know what the dependencies are, and ask me only about those things that might have changed. That wouldn’t require programming innovation, just using best practices.

I’m not certain that any innovation was required in building healthcare.gov. Perhaps all it needed was adherence to programming and interface design standards. But it fails to clear even that low bar.

Millions of people who do not now have access to affordable (or any) health insurance will now have it available…if, in fact, anyone can actually sign up for it. If the numbers that are released in November are disappointing, it won’t be a reflection on the Affordable Care Act; it will be a reflection of the incompetence, negligence, and failure of the company that created it.

In the business of creativity and innovation we like to say that we have to accept failure and mistakes as a necessary by-product. But this is not an innovation failure. It’s a flat-out, no-excuses failure. The people behind it should be ashamed, publicly excoriated, fired, barred from any additional federal contracts, and sued. For starters.

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