Rx: Website Health — Learn What NOT to Do from Healthcare.gov

Successful projects only result when your industry expertise meets the digital expertise necessary to accomplish your online goals.

We are a family at Infomedia, and like many families, we hold a wide variety of opinions and beliefs. Because of those differences, we place a high premium on treating each other with respect and dignity. It’s great to see how we all get along and love working together even though we hold such divergent opinions. So this post is about Obamacare, but it’s not about politics or even healthcare — we think the problems with healthcare.gov are a bipartisan concern about a web project gone wrong, and there are lessons that we can share with our clients to make sure this kind of nightmare doesn’t happen to them.

We at Infomedia have worked on hundreds of sites. Some projects go smoothly, and others — well, others do not. There are some important markers for both kinds of projects, but those markers aren’t always evident upfront. Here are a few things we can learn from the website problems at healthcare.gov about the differences between a successful project and one full of difficulties, so we can spot these issues upfront and keep them from affecting your site.

Know your strengths

Obamacare is a brand-new initiative in an area where the government doesn’t have a lot of experience. They may be good at this someday, but right now they are learning. And while they’re learning how to operate, they’re also building one of the largest websites in history. Successful projects only result when your industry expertise meets the digital expertise necessary to accomplish your online goals.

Every successful web project that we’ve been a part of started with one critical ingredient: the client’s expertise in the field that the site represents. Any part of the project that puts a barrier between your expertise in your industry and the website is a major risk. For example, we LOVE to write content for our clients, but this doesn’t mean that the client doesn’t have a lot of work to do to get the content ready. We have a team of great writers (unfortunately for the reader, I am not one of them), but the industry expertise is yours. Developing content for your site is a partnership, not a task that we can take off of your plate.

Sometimes, a band-aid won’t do

Healthcare.gov is very complex. It contains over 500 million lines of code. This code was written by 55 different companies. One estimate says that 5 million lines of code will need to be rewritten in order to fix the problems. That can’t be the solution. Rewriting 5 million lines of code will be an immense boondoggle, and many more problems will result. Either the fix is much simpler than that, or they need to start over from scratch.

What can we learn from this? We believe that your website should be built and managed so that you rarely need a redesign. If your site is built on a system that can evolve over time (like WordPress) and you make small, frequent updates to your site, you can go years without a complete overhaul. On the flip side, if your site has many problems or has been stagnant for years, trying to go back and turn a 1977 Ford Pinto into a BMW isn’t going to work. In those cases, starting fresh on a new site is the best.

What happens when the unanticipated catastrophe happens?

According to security experts, Healthcare.gov is vulnerable to attack. If the confidential information that people enter gets compromised, it could be one of the biggest security breaches in the history of data. Every project is going to experience problems that you can’t anticipate in advance. Sometimes these problems will rise to the level of a catastrophe. How will you protect your business from this kind of problem? What if the site launches three months behind schedule? What if your product data can’t be imported into the site? A project that doesn’t account for the unexpected in both budget and schedule is at great risk.

There is such a thing as too many cooks in the kitchen

The Healthcare.gov project was managed by the Department of Health and Human Services, and it included 55 contractors (those are companies, and each company has many teams and many more individuals). Simply stated, successful website projects are managed by people who know how to manage a digital development project. This is where the expertise of a company like Infomedia comes alongside your industry expertise to create a successful project. A project like Healthcare.gov frequently requires many contractors, but they need technical leadership strong enough to coordinate all of the efforts.

Most business website development deals are a tiny fraction of the size of Healthcare.gov. The “too many cooks in the kitchen” problem arises on smaller projects when parts of the project that require coordination are farmed out to uncoordinated groups. A business might ask a friend to do the logo and a graphic designer to do the design. But a designer must understand the technical tools that will be used to build the site in order for the site to work efficiently. A strong project manager must coordinate all of the parties involved in a project, and few businesses possess the expertise to do this.

Communication between the technical staff and management can be fragile

Management needs a thoughtful touch when communicating with their web team. The workplace should be very demanding, and accountability must be absolute, but on the flip side, projects are not usually completed successfully by bullying or the sheer force of a manager’s will. Having the ability to listen to those who are doing the work and adjust accordingly is critical. According to reports, the problems with Healthcare.gov have been evident internally for months, but management was unwilling to listen and accept the situation. A lot of the public embarrassment could have been avoided if adjustments were made earlier in the process.

Final thoughts

Healthcare.gov is not a typical case, but the problems exposed by its launch are typical. I wish we could say that we have never had a project head into difficult territory, but that just wouldn’t be true. What I can say is that we have learned a lot over these last 19 years, and we are dedicated to using that knowledge to help businesses succeed. Send us a note (jamie@infomedia.com) or comment and share your thoughts on the markers of successful and unsuccessful projects. Call us today at 205-823-4440 to schedule a time to sit down and talk about these ideas in detail.

(And a h/t to Arnold Kling for the inspiration for this post.)

Photo Credit: pasukaru76 via Compfight cc

When others may rattle off terms like SEO, Analytics Reports and Local Search Optimization, Jamie makes sense of the buzzwords, giving context to the terminology and showing real results from digital tools. He’s a wiz with Google Analytics, and he loves finding ways small businesses can use online marketing to increase sales and web traffic. Creating popular posts may be part of Jamie’s job, but he’s proud to think out of the box, too. A few of his favorite things? “Music that nobody’s heard of, movies that don’t have any action or super heroes, and food that makes you close your eyes when you take a bite.” When he’s not online, you can find Jamie with his wife, Jessica, three kids and a Yorkie Poo named Fossie.


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