Healthcare e-Commerce Search Lessons for the Enterprise

Search Tools Wanting on Many Exchanges: This headline was too good to pass up even though stories about the failures of the Affordable Care Act web site are wearing a little thin right now. For those of us long involved in developing, delivering and supporting large software solutions, we can only imagine all the project places that have brought about this massive melt-down. Seeing this result: “many who get through the log-in process on the new health insurance exchanges then have trouble determining whether the offered policies will provide the coverage they need”, we who spend hours on external and internal web sites know the frustrations very well. It is not the “search tools” that are lacking but the approach to design and development.

This current event serves as a cautionary tale to any enterprise attempting its own self-service web-site, for employees’ in-house use, customer service extranets or direct sales on public facing sites.

Here are the basic necessary requirements, for anyone launching large-scale site search, internally or externally.

Leadership in an endeavor of this scale requires deep understanding of the scope of the goals. All the goals must be met in the short term (enrollment of both the neediest without insurance AND enrollment of the young procrastinators), and scalable for the long term. What this requires is a single authority with:

  • Experience on major projects, global in reach, size and complexity
  • Knowledge of how all the entities in the healthcare industry work and inter-relate
  • Maturity, enough to understand and manage software engineers (designers), coders, business operations managers, writers, user interface specialists and business analysts with their myriad of personality types that will be doing the work to bring millions of computing elements into synch
  • The authority and control to hire, fire, and prioritize project elements.

Simplicity of site design to begin a proof of concept, or several proofs of concept, rolled out to real prospects using a minimalist approach with small teams. This a surer path to understanding what works and what doesn’t. Think of the approach to the Manhattan Project where multiple parallel efforts were employed to get to the quickest and most practical deployment of an atomic weapon. Groves had the leadership authority to shift initiative priorities as each group progressed and made a case for its approach. This more technically complex endeavor was achieved over a 4 year period, only one year more than this government healthcare site development. Because the ability to find information is the first step for almost every shopper, it makes sense to get search and navigation working smoothly first, even as content targets and partner sites are being readied for access. Again, deep understanding of the audience, what it wants to know first and how that audience will go about finding it is imperative. Usability experts with knowledge of the healthcare industry would be critical in such an effort. The priority is to enable a search before requiring identity. Forcing enrollment of multitudes of people who just want to search, many of whom will never become buyers (e.g. counselors, children helping elderly parents find information, insurers wanting to verify their own linkages and site flow from the main site) is madness. No successful e-commerce site demands this from a new visitor and the government healthcare site has no business harvesting a huge amount of personal data that it has no use for (i.e. marketing).

Hundreds of major enterprises have failed at massive search implementations because the focus was on the technology instead of the business need, the user need and content preparation. Good to excellent search will always depend on an excellent level of organization and categorization for the audience and use intended. That is how excellent e-commerce sites flourish. Uniformity, normalization, and consistency models take time to build and maintain. They need smart people with time to think through logical paths to information to do this work. It is not a task for programmers or business managers. Content specialists and taxonomists who have dealt with content in healthcare areas for years are needed.

How a public project could fail so badly will eventually be examined and the results made known. I will wager that these three basic elements were missing from day one: a single strong leader, a simple, multi-track development approach with prototyping and attention to preparing searchable content for the target audience. Here is a lesson learned for your enterprise.

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