Website problems of Healthcare.gov could have been greatly reduced with technical communicators on the job
Like most Chief Executives, President Barack Obama could have saved himself a whole lot of trouble if he had hired a technical communicator. Healthcare.gov became a public relations nightmare for his administration due to problems with enrollment and numerous user errors as millions of people tried to sign up for government health care subsidies.
Those are precisely the kinds of problems technical communicators are trained to solve. Technical communicators are advocates for the user. They carry out extensive user testing of products and websites, and contribute to a better user experience on every project. Having such practitioners involved in development of the Healthcare.gov site would have greatly reduced the number of user errors, and made the entire process smoother.
David Auerbach writing on Slate.com notes that large scale projects with multiple contractors working in isolation are not only going to miss problems, they often create them. Remember the carbon dioxide scrubber mismatch on Apollo 13?
Technical communicators concern themselves as much with the big picture as the technical details, so they would have ensured those groups communicated with each other, or at least shared information. It’s a technical communicator’s role to think each project through from beginning to end, especially from the user’s perspective — and then ask the questions that need to be answered to enhance the user experience and support user performance.
Apart from the obvious problem of heavy load, which should have been anticipated by the server administrators, Healthcare.gov subjected users to confusing navigation, meaningless error messages, a broken sign-up process, and information privacy issues.
Executives from CGI Federal, which handled most of the project, claimed testing began too late and the website rollout was premature. Technical communicators, while handling the documentation tasks related to web content and product development, begin user testing as soon as they can get their hands on a stable working version. Consequently, errors are found during early stages of development, allowing bug fixes to be made quickly and inexpensively as the product is being worked on, instead of after delivery when errors are not only embarrassing but much more expensive to repair.
Further, Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J. pointed out that the government was sending out mixed messages, telling people they could keep their policies in one place, then elsewhere telling them they couldn’t. That’s another area where technical communicators add value to an organization: they ensure all communications are clear, consistent, correct, and appropriate for the target audience.
Of the myriad issues plaguing Healthcare.gov, technical communicators could have helped with most of them. Technical writers, now called technical communicators because they do so much more than just write, have always worked to make technology easier to use and understand. Technical communication is practical communication, intended to help someone perform a task, answer a question, or solve a problem. In institutions, government, corporations, and businesses large and small, technical communicators contribute to reducing customer support costs and improving user satisfaction.
For more information on the Society for Technical Communication and its professional members, see http://stc.org. To apply for the Seneca College Technical Communication post-graduate certificate program, see http://senecacollege.ca/fulltime/TECC.html