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Health Insurance Exchanges Struggle To Charm Customers

Up to 80% of consumers abandon their transactions on the checkout page, even on well-designed retail sites. How can healthcare exchanges learn from their mistakes?

 7 Portals Powering Patient Engagement
7 Portals Powering Patient Engagement
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The nation's state and federal healthcare insurance exchanges are gradually overcoming a variety of technical growing pains but continue to face an uphill battle on one essential measure of success: closing the sale.

In the weeks since repairs began on the federal government's online health insurance marketplace, has made big strides in improving the purchasing experience for visitors. The tech problems that dogged the site when it launched Oct. 1 -- long page-loading delays, mysterious error messages, and site crashes from too much volume -- have mostly been vanquished.

Because of these problems, and the political battle over healthcare reform in Washington, media attention has focused heavily on the performance problems of the federal website and largely overlooked the exchanges established by 17 states and the District of Columbia. 

Many of the state sites, including those rolled out by California and Kentucky, have been praised as a success in signing up thousands of residents and avoiding the types of technical glitches that plagued the federal exchange. Other state exchanges, most notably Maryland's Health Connection, have faced technical glitches that have marred their rollout.

Mostly overlooked have been subtler aspects of each health exchange's design, and an issue familiar to most online retailers: How well do the information and navigational aids on each of the sites translate customer visits into customer purchases?

[ Read our complete coverage of the launch. ]

Qubit, a company specializing in website optimization for retailers, has found that between 60% and 80% of visitors abandon their transactions at checkout, even on optimized commercial sites.

What might federal and state-run exchanges learn from commercial sites? Qubit examined all the healthcare exchanges, and discovered the exchanges could learn quite a bit from private-sector lessons.

"We thought this was interesting to undertake because we're a technology company that builds [products] to understand consumer behavior on the Web," said Ian McCraig, co-founder and CMO of Qubit. "There are best practices that we tend to look for on the retail sites; we wanted to see how they translate to these healthcare sites."

The company applied 11 yes-or-no questions to all 19 online health insurance sites. These questions offer a partial checklist of what project managers should be asking of their design and build-out teams:

  • Can you easily determine the purpose of the website and what it has to offer?
  • Is the login functionality clearly displayed?
  • Are there large call-to-actions on the page?
  • Is a help icon or contact number visible at all times?
  • Does the website provide a "hints and tips" or "help" section?
  • Does the website use breadcrumbs to let users know where on the site they are at all times?
  • Does the website have a search functionality?
  • Does the "Search" call-to-action stand out from the page?
  • Does the navigation have drop-down or fly-out menus?
  • When navigating, did the drop-down or fly-out menus incorrectly disappear?
  • Is the shopping cart clearly accessible?

"We found that the federal site didn't signpost the direction consumers should be going in order to purchase. There was no simple, easy way to contact anyone for help," said Robin Jack, Qubit's chief researcher. "You need to keep informing users where they are in the purchase process at any moment in time."

Source: Qubit survey of consumers on their experience with state and federal ( health insurance exchange websites.
Source: Qubit survey of consumers on their experience with state and federal ( health insurance exchange websites. didn't fare too badly overall on the benchmarks evaluation. Qubit found that the site met seven of the benchmarks, as did California and Utah. Based on Qubit's research, using U.S. Census data, 88% of American citizens have access to websites that hit seven or more of the benchmarks.

But hitting the benchmarks doesn't necessarily translate into higher purchasing rates. Maryland's site hit all 11 benchmarks, for instance, but its underlying technical problems hamstrung visitors from being able to purchase health insurance. Kentucky's site, Kynect, in contrast, met only three of the prescribed benchmarks, but the state's enrollments generally surged.

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User Rank: Author
12/17/2013 | 7:02:31 PM
Customer satisfaction
One benchmark for comparing customer satisfaction is the quarterly surveys by Foresee for the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) E-Government Satisfaction Index,

It reports: In the functional categories, government e-commerce and transactional sites (with the latest quarter's score at 79) still lags the private sector, but only slightly (81.1), but the government outperforms the private sector in e-business (portals, search engines, and news and information sites), which slid to 71.3 in a July report.

David F. Carr
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
12/17/2013 | 11:48:58 AM
Alternatives are good
For those who couldn't get health insurance at all before (or only a plan excluding coverage for their preexisting conditions), the exchanges and the legal framework around them are a godsend. This may not be the right answer for everyone, but for those who really need coverage the technical and usability issues are a mere annoyance, not a fatal flaw.

Still, there's no reason the exchanges can't provide a more positive experience. The launch of reminds me of this Terry Gilliam satire about the welfare state
User Rank: Apprentice
12/16/2013 | 2:11:35 PM
More important than the website is the product. The best website in the world is going to have trouble selling a bad product that is over-priced with restricted provider networks and high deductibles!
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