3 Website-Building Lessons From the HealthCare.gov Debacle
The federal government's disastrous launch of HealthCare.gov is an embarrassingly perfect example of basically everything you shouldn't do when going live with a website for the first time.
From crashed servers to security snafus, to dozens of bugs and tortoise-like load times, there isn't much the White House didn't screw up. Seriously. Only six people managed to sign up for health insurance on the site's rocky launch day. Not good.
Here are three HealthCare.gov fails and how you can avoid making them when launching your company's website:
1. Fail: Not preparing for an initial rush of website traffic.
Millions of people flooded HealthCare.gov on its first day and many of them were met with disappointing messages like, "please try again later" and "please wait" instead of "apply now." A lack of enough server capacity to handle the onslaught of traffic, combined with error-ridden software code, were mainly to blame.
Solution: Beef up server bandwidth to handle the load.
The more website traffic you anticipate, the more server capacity you should load up on. If you're hosting your own site, start by calculating some estimates of how many people might drop by your website on Day One. CSG Computer Support Group, Inc. offers a basic Server Bandwidth Requirement Calculator to help small businesses determine the web server bandwidth they'll need.
Once your site is up and attracting a steady number of visitors, you might need to scale up with additional web servers. Several popular website cloud hosting services, like Amazon Web Services and Windows Azure automatically scale to meet your website traffic needs.
2. Fail: Exposing users' identifying personal and financial information to security risks.
On Sept. 27, four days before the federal exchange's launch, Department of Health and Human Services officials were warned of the site's "inherent security risks." Users' birth dates, Social Security numbers and more were low-hanging fruit for identity thieves.
Solution: Complete a thorough security risk assessment.
Hire a small business cybersecurity specialist to run a risk assessment within 60 to 90 days of going live. Create and strictly abide by security standards, paying special attention to how you collect, store and perhaps even share your users' personal and financial data.
An easier option is to host your online store through a third-party ecommerce service that uses Secure Socket Layer encryption, like Yahoo Small Business. Such vendors handle most aspects of your site's security, from online payments to customer information and beyond.
3. Fail: Not testing site navigation and functionality.
One of the biggest reasons HealthCare.gov bombed out of the gate is that people couldn't use it for what it was supposedly designed to help them do: shop and sign up for health insurance plans. Software glitches, sluggish servers and muddled site structure were mainly to blame. As a result, in the federal exchange's first week, only 1 percent of the 3.7 million people who tried to register were successful, according to the nonpartisan research firm Millward Brown Digital.
Solution: Exhaustively test your website before going live.
Hire a usability testing company to sniff out your site's weak spots and then improve each one. This critical pre-launch step helps you weed out bum software code and better understand your audience, particularly whether or not they find it easy to get around and use your site.
There are several reliable usability testing services that are relatively inexpensive, including UserTesting.com. Their pricing for small businesses starts at $49 per usability test by a real person. A similar service is Userlytics, which charges $39 to $99 per month, depending on the amount and depth of testing and feedback.
Kim Lachance Shandrow is the former West Coast editor at Entrepreneur.com. Previously, she was a commerce columnist at Los Angeles CityBeat, a news producer at MSNBC and KNBC in Los Angeles and a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times. She has also written for Government Technology magazine, LA Yoga magazine, the Lowell Sun newspaper, HealthCentral.com, PsychCentral.com and the former U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. C. Everett Coop. Follow her on Twitter at @Lashandrow. You can also follow her on Facebook here.