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.

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