Hiking, Healthcare.gov, and Bad UX: A Case Study

Hiking, Healthcare.gov, and Bad UX: A Case Study

Designing a website with great usability is an intricate process and can be accomplished in many ways, but in its most basic form, a well-thought-out website boasting solid user experience should accomplish one thing.  It should provide clear direction that allows your user to navigate the website resulting in no “dead ends” or uninformed decisions.

Being an outdoorsy person who enjoys hiking, I like to relate the user experience to a trail map. An inaccurate map causes a hiker to lose confidence in its value very quickly. The same goes for a website.  With both a trail map and a website, you have to assume the user knows nothing and has never been there; therefore the two things you want to avoid are the user coming to a “dead end” or the user becoming lost and confused.

When I refer to a “dead end,” I am talking about a situation in which the user comes to a point on a website where he can’t accomplish the task he set out to do because the user interface is not giving him a clear option on how to navigate to the next step or, even worse, the next step does not even exist. More often than not this results in a user leaving your site or calling customer service, both of which cost you money and potentially, your customer’s happiness.

A dead end is bad, but even worse is when a user becomes lost and confused.  Go back to the hiking analogy. A lost and confused person on a trail, using an unreliable map, does not know if he is continuing down the right or wrong path and could eventually tire himself out to the point of exhaustion walking in circles. The same can happen on a website.

We don’t claim any political affiliation here at Xtra Mile Media, but we think one thing both sides of the aisle can agree on is that a poor user experience is frustrating at the least and very costly at the worst, especially when it comes to important issues like health care.

Case Study:  Healthcare.gov

Let’s take a look at healthcare.gov, a beautiful website with a clean appearance.  After spending just a little time on the website, you will begin to see that the UX was secondary to design when this website was being developed.  We will cite a case study or “user story” of a healthcare.gov user who wants to reset his password.


Lost Password on Healthcare.gov

User Story:

User should easily be able to reset his password.


The User lost his password and was sent a password reset email.   The email had a link that redirected him to the website, where his goal, of course, is to reset his password. Sounds simple enough, right?  Well, you would think, but this objective obviously was not tested for optimal usability.

Step 1

He is asked to enter the answer to three security questions.

Step 2

He enters the three answers

Step 3

He enters his new password info.

Step 4

He is returned an error message that tells him 1 of 2 things could be wrong and gives him the option to return to the login page.   Time to start over.

Problem Solved:


User story accomplished:


Analysis :

First, he feels confused. Second, he is not confident that if he proceeds and spends additional time on this site that he might be able to solve his user problem. Does he want to keep heading down the wrong path and invest more time into this?  Probably not.   Most users will probably pick up the phone and call healthcare.gov, or they will leave the site.  Either option probably results in a frustrated and angry user.

What’s the main issue here? Healthcare.gov does not define a clear direction or solution to the user.  Instead, the error page gives him two different things that could be wrong:

    1. One or more of your three answers to your security questions could be wrong. (Once you return to the login page to start the process over again, you have very little additional information with which to solve the problem on the 2nd time around.)

2.  You didn’t provide a new password.


Start with option one: It’s a little more complicated than it seems because you could have one, two, or three of any combination of the answers wrong.  Let’s take a look at the possible combinations of answers: use w for wrong and r for right.

www, wwr, wrw, wrr, rww, rwr, rrw, rrr

That is 8 different combinations of possible right and wrong answers that you have to play a game of memory with until you get them right, each time navigating through the entire loop to get to the final screen telling you if you got them right or wrong.

Then there’s the second error message. It is just absolutely unclear.  If the user didn’t enter a new password (which he did), then why the heck is it even suggesting that he did? Plus, he clearly did because he had to enter one to progress to this step.


The solution here is fairly simple and could be solved with a little bit of thought accompanied by a few extra lines of code from the developer.

On this screen, the user should immediately be told which questions are wrong and not allowed to proceed until they are right.

If there is a password issue, he should be told that issue on this screen

With a little bit of testing and these few tweaks, you have provided clear direction for the user and enhanced a beautifully designed website with a beautiful experience.

User Experience should always be the primary concern of your product design and development team.  Often, people get art and design confused. Exceptional design can be great art, but unlike art, good design must provide clarity and direction to the user.

Ignoring usability on your website could limit your beautifully-crafted work of art into being just that, a work of art.

SEEK & FIND: The Importance of a Search Feature on your online store

SEEK & FIND: The Importance of a Search Feature on your online store

Search feature

There  is no confirmed percentage, but most e-commerce experts will agree that customers browsing a particular online marketplace have a general idea of what they are looking for.  If it’s not a particular item, it’s in a definable realm of products.  The beauty of online shopping is that within moments of realizing that you want something, you can be browsing virtual shelves displaying the exact product you seek.  There’s no having to take a shower, or having to change clothes, or dealing with traffic, or parking, or annoying crowds.

If a customer enters your virtual store, then they most likely understand that you are carrying, or potentially may carry, the item they desire.  But how easily is it for them to find that item?  Is your site easy to navigate? Are your products placed in clear and concise categories? Can they find that velvet turtleneck within three or four clicks?  Of course they can. You did your due diligence, and you understand that to get that item in your customer’s cart, they have to find it first. Your practical and logical navigation features are simply perfect.  So we’re good there.

But not every customer browses online stores the same way. There are people that shop with a precise efficiency and determination. These shoppers take a different approach, and they know exactly what they want. They do their research, and they want to give you their money.  The only catch: they want to use the search tool, and if yours is hard to find or tucked away in a corner they will be a “gone pecan.”  (Southern phrase that translates to something having to do with leaving.)

All online stores should include a search feature.  The feature allows a customer to bypass the stroll down the aisles and go directly to the product or item they are seeking to find.  Your site needs the search tool just as I need my walkman playing Darius Rucker in order to fall asleep at night.  But how obvious is your search tool?  Is it placed in an obvious spot?  Are you using an icon that is easily recognizable?  Will it lead a customer to the right item?

The search feature can sometimes be an eyesore in an otherwise beautifully designed landing page.  Its mundane and common appearance gives it an unoriginal quality that just bothers you.  Too bad, this isn’t about you.  It’s about your customers, and customers will use it, so you have to have it.  An intelligent and creative designer can make it fit.  Regardless of your feelings about the search bar, consider the following three questions when incorporating it into your sight.

Consider the following 3 questions:

# 1 Is it in plain sight or can it be found within a second or two?

The search feature is an integral way for your customers to find the goods that fill up their carts.  This fact should make you drop any qualms you previously held against the “search.”  You should view the feature not as a hindrance but rather a feature as important as the navigation menus you’ve worked so hard on.  Placing it where it can be easily spotted near the top or close to your menu bar will ensure that the customers that intend to use this feature don’t click away because they can’t find it.

#2 Is there text already sitting in the search box?

Some search boxes already have a word or phrase sitting in the box.  The purpose I’m sure is to inform the page visitor that this is where they type what they are searching for.  Although useful, online shopping and surfing the web in general have now become routine activities for most of us.  Don’t waste your customers’ time by forcing them to erase pre-existing text in the search box.  Customers should be able to click in the box and begin typing immediately.  Having to delete words that they did not fill in is annoying, and although it’s trivial, in the big scheme of the shopping process, why allow yourself to be the one store behind the curve?  No major online marketplace does it, so why should you?  “So for now, for your customer’s sake, for your daughter’s sake,” (Chris Farley, Tommy Boy) you should avoid it.

#3 How can customers use your search feature?

This can quickly become a time consuming and drawn out process because it may require adding additional descriptions to your inventory. But because every sale matters, you’ll decide to do it. Some customers may search by SKU number, some by product descriptions, some by obscure references that don’t relate. How have you identified and tagged each product? You’ll want to be sure that no matter how a customer tries to search an item, it finds its way onto the search results. One of the best ways to handle this is to examine a competitor’s site and perform a search for a product using a variety of references. Then do the same to your site. What differences do you encounter? This will not only allow you to analyze a competitor but will also show you some better tags to use for your products or give you other additional ideas.

It is undisputed that a search feature is necessary for all online stores. The only question to ask yourself is which category of online store you fall in: stores utilizing their search feature for their customers’ benefit (and ultimately to boost sales) or online stores that are allowing it to sit under-utilized.