Apr 22 2022

COVIDtests.gov Worked Where Other Government Websites Didn’t. Here’s Why.

Tailoring web design to customers’ needs ensured a successful launch.

Cast your mind back to early January 2022. A COVID-19 variant was collectively frustrating the country yet again. People were trying frantically to get tested, receive their booster shots or both. At-home tests were hard to obtain, and free drive-thru rapid test clinics across the country had cars backed up for blocks. 
But then, on Jan. 14, an announcement from the Biden administration: American households would be able to order up to four free at-home rapid tests through a new website, COVIDtests.gov.
This should have been a relief, but many Americans have distinct memories of government websites falling short. HealthCare.gov is an easy target, but let’s not forget the recent issues during the pandemic with state health benefits and unemployment insurance that required people to navigate complicated websites unprepared to handle heavy user traffic. 
And yet, as it turns out, COVIDtests.gov is pretty good. My own experience was one of pleasant surprise, with straightforward screen flow, simple language and minimal time spent on the website.
Many people completed the request form “in well under a minute, without feeling burdened or mistreated,” according to Politico. People reported successfully accessing and completing the order on their phones or through different browsers. 
And apparently, capacity hasn’t been an issue. COVIDtests.gov remains one of the most visited federal websites, according to analytics.usa.gov, getting over one million hits in a single day when it went live. 

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Lessons from Past Experience Improved Website Development Process

So, what made COVIDtests.gov different? For one, the federal government has learned a lot since 2013. The U.S. Digital Service was created as a result of the HealthCare.gov debacle to give the federal government a dedicated group of technologists to assess, plan and design a digital product, and that certainly helped the fledgling website.
Second, by looping in the right stakeholders in the planning stage — in this case, the Digital Service, the White House, the U.S. Postal Service, and the Department of Health and Human Services — the COVIDtests.gov product team was able to work collaboratively to come up with the best approach. 
Finally, the Biden administration issued an executive order last December on “transforming federal customer experience and service delivery.” It appears that the Digital Service took that to heart with its measured approach to COVIDtests.gov.
Part of this approach meant realizing how vital the address component was in ensuring that the tests were sent to the correct mailing locations. The USPS has an address search and verification feature that citizens use daily, so the product team decided to embed USPS’ functionality into the ordering process. 
The Digital Service also knew capacity was a potential concern. This new site could draw as much attention as a retail site on Black Friday, for a free product that consumers were desperate for. As such, the COVIDtests.gov team decided to use proven commercial products like those from Amazon Web Services that are designed to deal with heavy traffic. 
And despite its simple appearance — it’s basically a single-form webpage — a lot of back-end analysis ensured that the customer experience was fast and straightforward while the website handled traffic without crashing. 
Paul Smith, one of the people tasked with fixing HealthCare.gov, explains that the “user interface simplicity and architecture reinforce each other,” creating a quick, easy-to-use digital experience. 

DIVE DEEPER: Federal agencies are redesigning other websites to improve customer experience.

Plan Ahead for Future Customer Experience Projects

So, what lessons can the federal government and other agencies take from the success of this project? First, get the right stakeholders in the room. HealthCare.gov fell entirely to an agency that at the time had neither the means nor the expertise to deliver such a complex digital product.
Next, expand the role of groups like the Digital Service that collaborate and share knowledge across agencies, and focus on customer experience as a design consideration separate from the service or logistical component of the website.
Leverage commercial products and cloud hosting to shift some technical and maintenance burdens away from in-house federal staff.
Finally, replicate good project management practices. COVIDtests.gov was completed in three weeks with a small team that had ownership over the development timeline.
The success of COVIDtests.gov is a hopeful moment that the federal government is starting to get it when it comes to citizen-facing digital services. Federal agencies should continue to focus on what worked with that website, and replicate and scale its success.

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