Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”) website debacle. The problem is the website that’s supposed to allow millions of Americans to enrol so they can choose and purchase insurance plans doesn’t work properly.
In the last few weeks, congressional post-mortem hearings have been held with all stakeholders in the website, including all the web development contractors (CGI Federal, QSSI, Oracle, et al.) and key government bodies like the Department of Health & Human Services and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. The result? A whole lot of finger-pointing and excuses. No one is taking any responsibility for this major “fail”. Everyone is blaming one another.
President Obama initially said, three days after the rollout, that the website got “overwhelmed by the volume” and he promised a “tech surge” to fix the issue. Although this is a really great excuse, (one that some of us in the tech world have used before), it’s not exactly true. Experienced technical teams should have foreseen such an incredibly high volume of users and should have taken measures to handle such a volume.
Yes, millions of people hit the site at virtually the same time and caused a crash, as the site was overburdened with verifying each user’s insurance eligibility.
Yes, the site couldn’t handle the response of millions of Americans registering.
Yes, the site was excruciatingly slow, and Americans, who were eager to enrol, either gave up or were kicked out of the system.
The real issue, however, seems to boil down to one major deficiency: Quality assurance testing.
CGI Federal and other development contractors claim overall end-to-end testing was the responsibility of an agency within the Department of Health & Human Services. Furthermore, CGI Federal informed their client that more time was needed to work out the major issues with the site. But the Obama administration, fearing political blowback, refused to delay the launch of the website despite the warnings from CGI Federal. Failure to meet the October 1 launch date was said to be “not an option.”
This is where everything seemed to fall apart.
Anyone who has been a part of the development of a website (or any digital project for that matter) knows that the most critical and important stage is the quality assurance testing phase. Before any website goes “live,” it must go through rigorous testing, iterative revisions and re-testing in order to ensure a positive user experience and a fully functional end result. If it doesn’t work, you’re likely to lose your audience… And then, what was the point in the first place?
There are several phases of quality assurance testing that must happen before anything is made visible to the public. Quality assurance analysts conduct several forms of testing including functional testing (does it work?), usability testing (does it work and make sense to the user?), platform testing (will it work on Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Internet Explorer, etc.), regression testing (after developers fix a problem, does it work now?), and much, much more. Testing takes time and resources, but it’s so integral to a successful launch.
In the case of the Obamacare website, we can assume that with the launch date fast approaching, corners were being cut and timelines were being shaved. Agreeing to have the client conduct quality assurance testing is definitely not a best practice, especially when that client is paying more than $500 million for a foolproof solution. Did a full quality assurance test actually happen or did the client just review the front-end/visual part of the site without actually testing the functional areas? It’s hard to understand why any of the parties in this debacle didn’t take ownership of testing the most important and controversial website in American history.
So what can we, as a digital agency, learn from all this?
Test your work. Period. Make room in your timeline for a full quality assurance review. If the timeline is tight, try to revise your scope instead of shaving off valuable testing time in order to meet deadlines. Never, ever expect your client to test the final product properly unless they have a trained quality assurance analyst on their team and you have the ability to work side by side with that analyst. Get a test plan created by a qualified quality assurance analyst and follow that plan. Make time for testing!