This is what happens when government decides it can provide an online shopping experience to rival Expedia. The online insurance exchanges mandated by the Affordable Care Act choked on a surge of traffic when they launched Tuesday to begin signing up consumers for policies that will take effect in January.
The widespread problems affected both the states that had set up their own online insurance websites and the federal government's Healthcare.gov site, which was available to the citizens of 36 other states. Although there had been advance warning of functional glitches and features that would not be ready for the initial launch, the sites largely failed at a much more basic level: They were incapable of fully meeting the demand from the public. The citizens flocking to the site because they are currently uninsured or paying too much for health insurance encountered websites that were slow, unresponsive, or just unreachable.
On its second day of operation, the Healthcare.gov site was still having problems. The website itself was available as a marketing website, just not consistently available as an application. At the first stage of the process, where users create an account and share the information necessary to match them with the plans they are eligible for, the signup form was only intermittently available. The most visible change from launch day to day two was a prettying up of the error message page, a sort of equivalent of the infamous Twitter "fail whale" shown when twitter.com is too busy -- saying, "We have a lot of visitors on the site right now. Please stay on this page. We're working to make the experience better, and we don't want you to lose your place in line. We'll send you to the login page as soon as we can. Thanks for your patience!"
On the plus side, boosters of the law and backers of President Obama tried to shrug off the poor Web experience as evidence of how much overwhelming demand there was from citizens for better access to affordable health insurance. As a general principle, Web software architects sometimes argue that it can be impossible to model how consumers will interact with a website until it's actually available to the public. So when the public relations folks for the exchanges complain of unexpectedly high traffic, should we cut them a little slack?
"The excuse that the load was unexpected -- in my opinion, that's not a good excuse," said Jyoti Bansal, founder and CEO of AppDynamics, an application performance management firm that counts Netflix among its customers. "They should have known better about that."
Planning and testing for a big website launch like this is certainly challenging, but it's not impossible, Bansal said. The right way to plan to have enough website capacity is to take your expected demand and at least double it, then create a series of test scripts that simulate that load, he said.
Healthcare.gov was still overloaded on day two.
Bansal suspects the real problem is that even though Obamacare proponents talked about wanting to provide a slick online consumer shopping experience, the government technologists (and even the consulting firms they hired) had too little experience with what that really means. Most federal and state organizations run largely informational websites or applications that serve a relatively small population of employees and contractors, he said. "Very few government organizations would have these sorts of very large scale, public, interactive, transactional Web apps -- it's a newer thing for them."