What we can learn from Healthcare.gov


The Healthcare.gov launch fiasco, subsequent Congressional hearings, daily bug updates, and Google engineer assistance has revealed just how poorly the United States government builds technology.

Two recent articles, one from Theverge.com and the second a NYTimes Op Ed, outline in beautiful simplicity, just how messed up the government’s approach to building technology is, from the presiding mentality to the archaic procurement process and beyond.

Death by a thousand cuts – a recent product registration experience

The old saying, “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” is defined in Wikipedia as a form of torture and execution once practiced in Imperial China, as well as “Creeping normality” – the way a major negative change, which happens slowly in many unnoticed increments, is not perceived as objectionable.

Quite often, small, seemingly insignificant overlooked details reveal themselves during a user flow or process (in this case, product registration) to the point that when viewed in summation, the overall experience feels anything but delightful and ultimately negative. I get irritated because this kind of stuff isn’t rocket surgery. It’s not even rocket science. Registering a product with the manufacturer or service provider online should be easy. We know all the information, it’s generally right in front of us, and all we need to provide is our address for crying out loud. No longer are we required to cut the bar code out of the packaging and mail it in, or fill out a product registration postcard that comes with instructions and warranty.

Recently during a product registration comparative analysis, I felt like I was tortured trying to register my Samsung Galaxy Note 3. Right out of the gate, small things started adding up.

To begin with, I had to find where to register my product. Luckily I’d been auditing other websites and it seems that most companies tuck the action in the Support section of their websites. At the Samsung Register Your Product page, since I didn’t know what my model number was, I started scanning the list of links under the Mobile column. Immediately I had to determine whether or not I was supposed to select “Cell Phones” or “Galaxy Note.” It’s a Galaxy Note 3, so isn’t it a cell phone and a Galaxy Note?


I tempt fate and click on the link labeled, “Galaxy Note.” In a overlay with a series of pull down menus, my next step is to “Select a Product” from a list of cell phone provider “Notes.” The helpful prompt reads, “Choose Your Galaxy Note to find the model number.” Wah? My product is a Galaxy Note 3 (not in the list) and my carrier is T-Mobile. What is a T-Mobile Note?


After selecting “T-Mobile Note” (living dangerously, I know), one last drop down menu to go, until the next flaming hoop. Fortunately for me the final drop down menu labeled “Model Number” displays yet another helpful prompt, “Refer to the picture to find the model number.” The picture, I guess, displayed to the right of the drop down menu under the heading, “Here’s Where To Find The Model Number.” One small problem. What’s missing from this picture?


Answer: The Picture.

Alrighty, so that’s lame and not very helpful. Maybe I can guess the Model Number. I click on the menu to reveal my options:


Nope. Not gonna try. I flip the device over and examine the back, thinking perhaps there’s something similar to my iPhone. Nothing on the back. Just the black, fake-leather back with T-Mobile/Galaxy Note 3 emblazoned on it. I remove the black, fake-leather back. Now I’m looking at the battery. Still nothing.

Off to Google I go. I start by searching for how to find my model number for my Galaxy Note 3. Fortunately for me, someone put a tutorial on YouTube.

I remove the black, fake-leather back. I pull the battery out. There it is. Oh but wait, it only shows the first 6 characters, “SM-900T.” Where’s the other number in either ZWETMB or ZKETMB? I got nothing.

Once again, I decide to guess. This time, however, I assume that the “W” stands for “White.” Since my Galaxy Note 3 is black, I select the “ZKETMB” option. Fingers crossed.

Success! According to the rather small product photo, I guessed correctly. The confirmation language however, is anything but close to what I registered. “We have saved the Samsung (correct) T-Mobile (also correct) Cell Phones (I registered a Galaxy Note 3, and only one of them, as in, not plural) to your account.” Oh well, close enough.


Now all I have to do is add some additional information and I’m done.

The instructions tell me, “Fill in as much as you can now. Keep in mind, you can always return and finish at a later time.” Sounds optional to me.

However, in bolder, bigger text, the screen gives me a dire heads-up, “In order to get support, you must enter the HEX/MEI Number and purchase date of your product.” (In my head I hear Gandolf the Grey saying, “You must enter!”)

And, also per the instructions, “Please use the HEX/MEI Number found on the actual product, not the box.” Okay, fine. But it makes me think, why wouldn’t they be identical? What makes the HEX/MEI on the box (actually labeled “Handset IMEI”) not usable? Naturally, I had to check the box against the device. Just as I suspected. They’re identical.

I proceed to enter the HEX/MEI number (from the device) and the purchase date. I decide to skip the rest of the information fields because this whole process is taking longer than I intended and since the remainder of the information is optional…


Okay, to be fair, I had information in the zip code field. But the instructions said to fill in as much as I could now. Doesn’t that infer partial completion? And how come the “State” pull down menu isn’t outlined in red with instructions to select a state like the other blank form fields?

Fine. Whatever. I fill in the rest of the contact information to make the website happy. And click the “Submit” button at the bottom of the form. I just want this to be over.


SERIOUSLY!? A blank screen with a Chrome dialog box? Is this an alert? A Warning? The product is already registered to my account!? How is this possible? Hello? I’m trying to complete my registration. I click on the “OK” button, expecting to be automatically returned to my partially complete product registration page.


Instead, I get a blank, “Register your Product” page.

You’ve got to be kidding me.

I think at this point the average consumer would have tried to contact Samsung, or call their 13-year old nephew to figure this out. However, being a UX person, I feel my sense of obligation to keep pushing through.

In short order:
I hit refresh a couple of times until I get back to the product registration page I was on originally.

I decide to remove the product by clicking the “Didn’t mean to add this product, click here to remove” link to start all over again. (And by the way, it would be impossible to accidentally add “this” product, as the copy infers.)

Instead of removing the product and starting me back at step 1, the site just keeps refreshing the partially complete product registration page. Only it’s removed the date of purchase.

Obviously, I’m tempted to see how this is affecting “My Account”. Do I have zero products? Or more than one Samsung Galaxy Note 3? I get a blank page for my answer.

After a good 6 minutes of troubleshooting, I get into My Account. I have one Samsung Galaxy Note 3, (carrier: T-Mobile) registered. It took me nearly 25 minutes.

I get an email congratulating me on my successful registration (“A gift for registering your Samsung”). Apparently, ownership has it’s rewards. My reward is 50% off any mobile accessory under $50. Awesome, I’ll buy a case for this puppy.


I click on the big, juicy “Shop now” button and am presented with a page of accessories for under $50. Yet none of the accessories shown are for a Galaxy Note 3. At first I’m confused. Why are they showing me accessories for a product I don’t own?


And then it hits me. All of these products are under $50.  But cases for the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 start at $59.99. Not only are they linking me to accessories I can’t use because they’re for the wrong product, the product I actually want doesn’t appear to qualify for the 50% coupon code.

While I wish I had a witty, stellar summation to wrap this up, but I don’t. It’s worth pointing out how this experience is a great example of what happens when small, seemingly insignificant details add up to inflict damage on the end-user:

  • Damage in the sense of loss of trust and consumer confidence.
  • Damage as in negative feelings towards the brand.
  • Damage as in the erosion of the user perception that the brand cares about its customers and their ongoing product experience.

Consumers’ Mobile Path to Purchase: 5 key findings

In this constantly connected world, people use their smartphones throughout the day to find information, shop, and stay connected. Google commissioned Nielsen to conduct a study of smartphone users who recently made a purchase to better understand the role of mobile in the research and shopping process. Through a combination of surveys and metered data of actual mobile consumer behavior, Google uncovered five key findings:

  1. Consumers spend time researching on mobile: Consumers spend 15+ hours per week researching on mobile sites and apps. They visit websites 6 times on average in the purchase process.
  2. Mobile research begins with search: 48% of consumers start mobile shopping-related research using search engines, more than they start on branded apps or websites.
  3. Location proximity matters: 69% of consumers expect a business to be within 5 miles of where they’re located.
  4. Purchase immediacy is key: 55% of consumers want to purchase within an hour, 83% within a day.
  5. Mobile influences purchases across channels: Of those who made a purchase and researched on their phones, 82% purchased in-store, 45% bought online (desktop/tablet) and 17% purchased on mobile.

With smartphone penetration in the US nearly doubling year-over-year from 31% to 56%1, it’s clear that the mobile savvy shopper is here to stay.

Key Implications
Below are ways that advertisers can use these insights to better reach the mobile consumer and drive more business:

Ensure you have a mobile-optimized site
Consumers expect a business to have a mobile-friendly website. To create a mobile-optimized experience, you’ll want to start by analyzing how your consumers currently interact with your website, what they’re looking for, where they’re visiting from, etc. These insights will provide hints for creating a mobile website that meets your consumers’ needs. For more information on building sites that are optimized for mobile and other devices, check out these resources.

Tailor your search ads for the mobile shopper
As search is the most common starting point for mobile shopping research, it’s important to have mobile ads running so you’ll be there when consumers are looking for you. You can help consumers get the information they need by designing your search ads with mobile-preferred creatives, such as “Call now” or “Visit our mobile site.”

Use location extensions so consumers can find you
Location extensions allow you to attach your business address to your ads, which lets consumers know how close they are to your business and provides directions for consumers to get to your store.

Facilitate faster checkouts
Showing local in-stock inventory with local PLAs, enabling click to call and building fast, seamless mobile checkout experiences with tools like Google Wallet Instant Buy are several ways advertisers can help consumers complete their purchases quickly.

Measure conversions across channels with cross-device conversion tracking
Consumers purchase across channels, often times starting their research on mobile, then buying in-store or on their computers. Advertisers can better understand how mobile ads drive purchases by using estimated cross-device conversion to measure conversions that start from mobile research.

To explore more of the findings from the Mobile Path to Purchase research, view the full presentation at the Think with Google site.

From Inside Adwords, posted by Bao Lam, Performance Ads Product Marketing Manager. 

1 Google & Ipsos Our Mobile Planet, 2011-2013

What makes a live chat experience successful?

By now, those of us who use the internet regularly are familiar with a live chat experience. You can initiate a live chat on practically any website that sells or supports something. The live chat UI is pretty standardized with conventional elements: a field for the user to type in her query or information and a “Send” or “Enter” button to send/submit what was typed to the agent or customer service representative on “the other side.” As the chat or conversation continues, the user and the agent responses are visually distinguishable with time stamps, customer name and agent name or roles represented, and additional graphic elements to further separate the two, such as colored backgrounds and horizontal rules, are often implemented. Like I stated, pretty standard stuff.

Recently during a live chat “optimization” project, I was asked if any of the recommendations I made were based on a “heuristic analysis” of other chat experiences across the site (it’s a large site with lots of different product groups). The answer was No, partially because that was beyond the original scope of the project, but also because the other chat experiences were standardized. It did, however, get me thinking about what makes a live chat experience successful for both the user and the customer service representative? Is it the UI? Is it the context and placement of all the chat elements, starting with the chat button? Or is it the human element – the  personality, empathy of the agent?

The answer is, all of them.

Starting with the live chat UI, it should meet the expectation of the site’s visitors. While the UI design should align to standards and conventions (discussed above), audience familiarity also needs to be taken into consideration. For visitors unfamiliar with the concept of live chat, it may mean more emphasis on directions/information to set proper expectations, whereas a site with more savvy users wouldn’t require such emphasis, and minimal direction is likely appropriate.

If the site has more than a single live chat experience (they do exist), unifying the look and feel of all the UIs under a single brand standard with a secondary nod to the product look and feel shouldn’t hurt the consumer experience. It would most likely enhance the perceived brand value. But implementing and maintaining a standard UI is also imperative as well.

In my search for what’s out there on live chat user experience, I came across an article on Usability.com that discusses a best practice, holistic approach to chat, starting with the look and feel of the chat icon button, the availability and placement of the live chat option, and content and interface design of the live chat screen.

Look and feel of Live Chat icon

Live chat buttons/graphics/tiles vary across sites, and deciding what type of visual representation to adopt should depend on the demographic segment of the site’s target visitors. However, if the site has a broad swath of gender, culture and geography, than a gender- and culture-neutral icon or text link may be more appropriate.

Availability and placement of the Live Chat icon

Some sites attempt to aggressively establish live interaction with their site visitors by presenting visitors with a chat window within a few minutes of visitors arriving at the site. This could become a distraction which may cause visitors to leave the site altogether. To that end, discretion should be used when considering whether to push unsolicited live chat onto visitors.

Many retail sites choose to place the chat option link in the text links area at the bottom of site pages and the homepage (often within a Customer Service category of links). Placing the chat link at the bottom of the page still gives access to the option, it may be easily overlooked or unnoticed. Users may think the live chat option doesn’t exist.

However, there is an emerging trend of placing the chat feature in the general area of the top navigation bar could serve visitors better by making the chat icon fairly inconspicuous, but at the same time giving it more visibility than a text link located within the page footer.

Many retail sites are placing the chat option in the vicinity of “Add to Cart” buttons on product pages, as well as possible points within the site where customers may need to seek answers to questions, such as the Check out process, as well as Help, Customer Service and Contact us. Placing the icon next to the search field may also increase the visibility of the chat option, as search typically generates a significant amount of use.

Content and User Interface design of the live chat screen

Once visitors access the chat functionality, the site needs to provide them with a user-friendly and seamless user experience. Usability.com gives us the following guidelines to be mindful of:

  • Avoid requiring users to enter personal information such as their telephone number and email address, as this may discourage users from initiating the chat.
  • When a visitor initiates a chat, ideally, a representative should be available to respond immediately. If that is not possible, the visitor should be shown a message displaying the estimated wait time.
  • In situations where representatives have to leave the chat momentarily to check records or obtain additional information, ensure the representative informs the visitor of this by saying something to the effect of “Give me a moment and I will check that for you.”
  • When representatives are typing their response, display a message on the chat screen that reads, “Representative is typing a message.” This will keep visitors informed and they will be less likely to question a delay in response time due to a lengthy message.

You could leave it at placement, look and feel, availability, and best practices UI. But in a live chat experience the customer/visitor is interacting with and having a conversation with another human being. How can that exchange NOT affect a successful user experience?

Recently, Netflix made headlines when one of its customer service chat representatives took on the persona of a Star Trek captain during a live chat. Mike Mears, a Denver-based Netflix customer service rep and fan of Star Trek started a chat with “Norm,” a Netflix customer who was having problems with streaming “Parks and Recreation.” “Norm” played along, and both stayed in character the entire time.

In any other company, this might have gotten Mears reprimanded or fired. But apparently not at Netflix. The company doesn’t allow its agents to follow a script and supports the agents letting them be themselves. Apart from asking customers to take a one-question survey at the end of a chat, the agents can say whatever they want, joke with a customer, and do their absolute best to relate to the customer all while solving their problem successfully (transferring the customer to another agent is discouraged).

Once upon another lifetime I worked for Nordstrom, and while I never had a customer try to return any tires, the mantra of “ownership” was loud and clear. Literally, the only rule we followed was build the best customer service relationship ever. Later in life, I did a stint as phone customer service representative for a large insurance company and then a water sports company. The difference between customer service as culture vs a department was never more obvious.

Which brings me back to live chat experience. Any online company can implement a branded, targeted, best practices chat experience.  But don’t overlook the power of the human element at the other end of the chat experience. At any given moment, chat agents are the company representative. A poor chat experience can affect the how the customer perceives the company. (Not to mention, the company may want to reevaluate the chat agent job requirements and training).

Failure to give the right representatives ownership and authority to solve problems means the overall user experience of the live chat will only be partially successful, if at all.

My Cup Runneth Over

Didn’t think I was going to become a magnet for this kind of stuff, but it would appear another water dispenser with bizarre dispensing rules has found me. Or I found it. Or one of my coworkers told me to go check it out. Whatever.

Yet another counter-top model, this particular design has three, flush buttons  across the top on the angled surface, with a filter status indicator to the left. The buttons read, from left to right, Hot, Cook, and Cold. The labels are accompanied by icons supposedly representing the water temperature, Steam for “Hot,” C for “Cook” (whatever temperature that is; the button is in between Hot and Cold, so it’s Lukewarm?) and a Snowflake for “Cold.”



In order to dispense cold water, you press and hold the button labeled “Cold.” Pretty self-explanatory and it behaves just as expected. If you want “Cook” temperature water, you press and hold the button labeled “Cook.” 2 for 2. Now it gets crazy. If you want hot water, you logically press and hold the hot button and expect hot water to dispense. Wrong. No hot water dispenses. WTH? The only thing that happens is the Hot water button flashes at you and you stand there like an idiot, wondering what’s going on, is it broken, did I miss something, etc?


Yes,  you did miss something: the very small instructions on the top of the machine that instruct you to push the “Hot” button and touch “Cold” button at the same time in order to dispense “Hot” water. Not only are these instructions so small that you easily overlook them, they’re also not in your line of focus. Furthermore, the “hot” and “cold” in the instructions aren’t capitalized like they are in the button label, causing a brief disconnect. Last but not least, what about having to  “push” and “touch” two different buttons simultaneously.  In an office environment where at least one of my hands is most likely clutching a phone, laptop, paperwork or any number of other objects.



I can only guess that the reason this particular dispenser works this way is to avoid people suing them for accidentally burning themselves by not paying attention. I get it. But, multi-tasking to get a cup of hot water for tea. Who would have thought?

Mobile is Eating Our World, Russ Whitman, SIC 2013

I recently attended a talk given by Russ Whitman of Ratio Interactive during Seattle Interactive Conference (#sic2013, #sicmobile). Russ and I actually worked together in the 90’s on a product called the “icebox” – an internet enabled kitchen appliance. (Basically, a TV with the internet on it with a washable keyboard and mouse). Oh, how far we’ve come in 15+ years. (And where are we going?)

The industry is now:

  • Big and Micro data; the small things and moments build big data – don’t discount micro-data
  • Personal and Enterprise data
  • Native and Web
  • Cloud and Local
  • Multi-screen beyond smartphones and tablets – TVs, cars, airplanes

Our world is made up of touch, mouse, controller and gesture interaction. Design and UX matter. The shift is worldwide, particularly with rapid adoption.

Consumers have a series of devices, no longer just one computer that stays in one room and does everything:

  • Tablets for reading, browsing
  • Smartphones for staying in touch, killing time, searching
  • PC/laptops as workhorses, transactional machines

The reality is we have screens in front of us every day, and we need to make them more useful. Whether it’s on your wrist, in your hand, on your desk, or in your car. Smart TVs are coming on strong. 67m Smart TVs were sold in 2012; 90m are projected to sell in 2013. It’s time to start thinking about branded, second screen experiences.

Digital video consumption grew exponentially through 2012 on non-PCs; more people are bypassing cable. Brands recognize this and are going digital only. Consider Netflix. They are the first non-TV network (cable or broadcast), to receive Emmy nominations (and awards) for their original series, “House of Cards.”

App downloads drive everything, they are not going away. Brands are working to build their own connected ecosystems through features and capabilities while keeping other brands out – aka “The Walled Gardens”  of Apple, Windows, Kindle/Amazon, and Android.

Why do people seem to use the same 5 apps? It’s a question of viewability and access. Consider how many app tiles/icons a user can see on the screen at one time, and how many screens do they have full of apps? What’s first, what’s last? We need to be smarter about bringing content forward – such as in contextual format, or time of day.

Also bear in mind that not all apps are created contextually equal. For example, a user may have and use up to 3 different note-taking apps, depending on the environment, the device, their immediate needs and goals.

When choosing between contextual experience over consistency – contextual experience always wins. A user won’t use your app or site if it doesn’t work for them in a a particular, preferred context.

The reality is that it’s software and it’s going to break. You can only test so much. Get real people in front of it, using it, as soon as you’re able and as much as possible.

Healthcare.gov, meet Congress


The anal probe of Healthcare.gov continues with agency representatives involved in developing and building the site appearing before a congressional hearing to answer questions about the glitches in performance and site requirements.

Some interesting UX revelations thus far:

Features are now basic expectations: 
On two separate occasions different congressional representatives referred to online giant Amazon (and Ebay) stating: 1) Product comparison on Amazon is not as difficult as it is on Healthcare.gov, and 2) Amazon doesn’t crash the week before Christmas under the heavy load of users on the site.

1) Comparison capabilities. Amazon practically invented the ecommerce we know today. Once a feature, product comparison has now become a basic expectation of retail sites. Healthcare.gov has it, but it’s “difficult” to use comparatively. The UX side of me wants to know what portion of the experience made it “difficult to compare” insurance plans compared to the experience of comparing TVs on Amazon.com.

2) Obviously a working website is beyond a basic expectation. But in Healthcare.gov defense, Amazon didn’t launch less than 30 days ago to tens of thousands of users. And, despite ramping up, websites will get glitchy when there is heavy user traffic. Case in point: First day of the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale–trust me, they learned when no one could  check out online a few years back. Never did go back and buy my shoes.

I think an even more logical comparison scenario would be to try merge Amazon, Ebay, Etsy, Macy’s, Zappos, Best Buy, and Apple into one ecommerce website and launch the day before Black Friday.

Last minute requirements/unnecessary hurdles:
Apparently, it was a “last-minute” requirement to make users create accounts prior to being able to browse insurance products. OMG. Why, why, why? That’s the equivalent of making users create an account to browse ANY ecommerce site.  I would have punched the individual who mandated that. (Or the closest wall.) Can you imagine the shit-storm that created in the contractor ranks? The whole site was more or less bogged down due to concurrent registration. Fortunately, it’s been updated so that users can “window shop” insurance products without having to create an account first. Thank goodness. 

Business as usual:
Congressional members seem to be fairly alarmed that one or more of the agency representatives are looking at the website problems as just another day in the realm of website launches of this nature (aggressive deadlines, last minute requirements, multiple vendors, numerous database reconciliations, millions of lines of code to test, etc).

In her prepared testimony, Cheryl Campbell (of CGI) said that “unfortunately, in systems this complex with so many concurrent users, it is not unusual to discover problems that need to be addressed once the software goes into a live production environment.”

“This is true regardless of the level of formal end-to-end performance testing — no amount of testing within reasonable time limits can adequately replicate a live environment of this nature,” she added.

Notably, many Republicans equated the problem-plagued website to a failure of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) itself. As Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas stated, “Obamacare is coming apart at the seams and it’s time to put this broken law to rest.”

As a UX professional, I will concede that a poor user experience can negatively affect  brand perception in the mind of the user. But, as a UX professional that has seen the launch of many sites and interactive experiences, I confidently state there are always small glitches or scenarios that only reveal themselves, despite all the user flows, scenarios, Q/A and testing you do. Not to mention clients with last minute requests. (Anyone who says otherwise is lying.) Unfortunately for Healthcare.gov, this isn’t just any site. Not with people’s livelihood in play, as well as  political theater and re-elections in the balance as well.

And while the site is getting “easier” to navigate and glitches are being addressed, politics are still involved. Which means the entire nation is now getting an education on how websites projects are often managed, designed, tested,and developed. For better or worse.

Is this button necessary?


Behold, the water cooler, counter-top style–one of several versions in my office. What’s a little nutty about this particular design (and why I’m bothering to mention it) is that despite how basic it actually is (cold or hot water), the actual process of getting the water to dispense always gives me a little cognitive hiccup, no matter how many times I’ve used it.

If you want cold water to dispense, you push the blue button, labeled “Cold.” Similarly, if you want scalding-hot, first-degree burn water to dispense, you push the red button, labeled “Hot.” However pushing the button doesn’t immediately dispense the water. Pushing the button selects which temperature of water to dispense. In order to get the water to dispense, you have to push the large-ish gray button, labeled “Dispense.” (I don’t know what the little green light does. My assumption is that it just lets you know the unit is turned on. No pod-bay doors to open here.)


4 out of 5 times I stand and hold the “Cold” button for several seconds, expecting water to fill my glass, and nothing happens. Then I remember I need to push the “Dispense” button. It drives me nuts. Particularly when the other water dispenser, a floor model, dispenses water when it’s “Cold” button is pushed.

If the buttons are intended to select the water temperature prior to dispensing, why do they have to be buttons that look like they’ll dispense water when pushed. They scream it. Why not  a  little semi-raised version that looks more like a selector than a dispenser? I did a quick audit of small-ish, counter top water dispensers and the “less-buttony/more selecty” design seems more appropriate for the intended function.

SN 12 Touchless
Manitowoc water and ice dispenser. Note that the “selection” buttons are above and to the right of the dispenser.

Got a similar water cooler or misuse of physical buttons story (or rant)?
Feel free to share.