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Website Development Takeaways from the Healthcare.gov Fiasco

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What can small businesses learn from the development fiasco of Healthcare.gov?

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As a web developer of over 15 years, every time I hear news updates about the mishandled government healthcare website, I chuckle a bit to myself–and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Every web developer has had a moment or two where things did not go as planned, where an unexpected glitch occurred and they scrambled to squash that pesky bug. Perhaps the client wanted an elaborate piece of custom code that ended up mushrooming into a massive Matrix-esque wall of code. Or maybe an obscure IE6 bug ended up taking days of Googling for answers and custom CSS fixes to conquer. With regard to Healthcare.gov, developing a giant website encompassing a multitude of laws, privacy concerns, bureaucratic policies, and literally over a million lines of code is no easy feat. I feel sorry for the armies of coders from multiple IT outsourcing companies that were tasked with creating this behemoth, and even more compassion for those tasked with fixing it. As a small business owner, there are lessons to be learned from this embarrassing fiasco, and although most small business owners will never need a website with this kind of complexity, there are still some solid takeaways for anyone looking to develop a website, big or small.

  1. Keep It Simple StupidKeep it simple (K.I.S.S.). Yes, this obvious cliche is easy to proclaim, yet it’s still one of the most overlooked mantras of website creation. With the many different ways a visitor can view a website these days, from mobile phones and tablets to tiny laptops and widescreen monitors, it’s best to use a clean and simple website design with familiar navigation and straight-forward elements. No need to bombard the user with too many options, tons of flashing GIFs, or over the top loud graphics. These days, people are used to browsing the web with clean white-space designs (think Google), simple hyperlinks, and fast loading content. Keeping it simple also makes your content withstand the test of time and can usually make it look less dated if done with simple elegance.From my experience, the Healthcare.gov website did a decent job with a nice clean, simple design and a somewhat straightforward sign-up process, and a simple navigation (when it actually worked). Though the actual navigation back and forth between different sections was confusing and ended up leaving me clicking around in circles to find what I was looking for.
  2. Set a proper budgetSet aside a proper budget. My favorite clients are the ones with realistic budgets who recognize that web development is a valuable service that is usually better left to a professional. When a client says to me they want a “Ferrari” at a “Civic” price I tend to shudder. Or even worse, when someone says to me “I’m not paying that much for something I can do myself.” To continue the car analogy, yes, theoretically I can change my own oil, but I for one prefer to pass on the separate trip to buy the oil, the messy accidental oil stain in the drive-way, the greasy clothes, and recyling the left-over oil and filter. A professional mechanic can properly change my oil in half the time with the proper tools and can also point out any glaring and obvious flaws in my car. The same goes for web development. A professional website developer or consultant can identify your target audience, suggest a proper design and hosting solution, a proper website framework, and can make helpful suggestions on how to get better exposure in the search engines.Knowing what a proper budget is for your project can go a long way in making your website a valuable tool of your business. For simple one page websites or pre-made template modification, you should expect to pay anywhere from $350-$1000. To set up a blog or a small and simple informational website, you can expect to pay $1500-$3000. For a full-fledged website with custom design, built on a platform like WordPress or Joomla, with well optimized code for SEO, you can expect to pay $3500-$6500. For a well built custom e-commerce website, depending on the features, you can expect to pay anywhere from $7000-$30,000 depending on the features you desire, and how much of it you’re willing to do yourself. These prices are the base prices and can go up depending on whether you need a custom database, but most small businesses should expect to pay around $3500-$5500 for a medium to high-end website that meets all of their needs.Apparently it was rumored that Healthcare.gov’s development price-tag was over $500 million, but more accurate estimates are around $70-150 million. You’d think that for this price tag, you would get the best darn website ever built. Yet due to rushed development and too many separate developers working on small pieces individually, the project will probably end up costing 3-4 times as much and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it top over $1 Billion. That is the biggest lesson to learn here. If you don’t set aside the proper budget and try to get it done on the cheap, you could end up paying twice as much for your website to get it done right.
  3. Don't Reinvent the WheelDon’t reinvent the wheel. As a small business owner, it’s important for you to realize that there are already existing website platforms like WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla that are enterprise level content management systems, and there is no need to build a website from scratch anymore. These frameworks have thousands of people putting in millions of hours to keep these frameworks bug free, updated, and a plethora of useful plugins to install. Most of the time, a completely custom website built on its own platform just ends up making more work to upkeep, maintain, and keeps you locked down to the person or team who originally created it. You may not realize it, but a good developer can build a website on WordPress to where the average person would have no clue that WordPress was originally created just for blogs. One example that I built is www.israeloutdoors.com. This website was built entirely on WordPress, yet other than the actual blog on the website, you would never know that the whole thing is built in WordPress.Another good idea to keep in mind is that when on a budget, it’s best to use existing frameworks or plugins and work around those modules, rather than having someone create a process that is completely custom. If you need a contact form solution that stores information into a database, WordPress has plugins for something like that. It may not fit entirely with the process by which you’ve kept your record keeping in the past, but it’s much better to adapt to a new system and let the plugin developers and community come out with updates and support, rather than pay for your own support and deal with the custom module breaking with new versions of browsers or code libraries.As far as I can tell, Healthcare.gov was built on the Backbone.js framework. While most small businesses probably don’t have a need for something this custom, it’s good to see that the developers chose to use a framework already in place, rather than re-inventing the wheel themselves.
  4. Take the time to set up a sandboxTake the time to set up a sandbox and play. If you have the time and a little extra in the budget, I would highly recommend that you create a sandbox. This is a completely separate website on a separate domain or sub-directory of your server where you have private access to a version of the website that is not live to the public. This lets you preview changes, test updates, and install new modules or plugins and play around with them before launching them live to the public. Not everyone has the time or extra budget to create something like this, but if you want to do it the right way, setting up a sandbox can avoid an embarrassing website errors or glitches on your live website, and gives you piece of mind so you can preview website changes without having to make it live and hope it doesn’t break.Healthcare.gov most certainly has a sandbox and operates on code repositories, though clearly they did not set aside enough time to get the sandbox version tested and working properly before launching. This leads me to my next and final point…
  5. Set aside plenty of timeSet aside extra time to test. Creating a website can be a time consuming task. It requires both the developer and the client to communicate at length, exchange pictures, files, and content. In an ideal world, a client would have all of their pictures, text, logos, and color schemes for their website zipped up and ready to send you the day the contract is signed, but in the real world, this scenario rarely happens. Creating proper expectations for how long a project takes is important, and leaving plenty of time in case something goes wrong or doesn’t look the way you want it is essential to have a happy experience with your new website. A typical website for a small business can take anywhere from 3-8 weeks, and it’s not unheard of to take longer depending on holidays and the responsiveness of a client. Once the website is in a demo stage, and even right after it goes live, both you and the developer need to test the website! Click every button and every link, fill out every form, hover over every picture, and test on multiple browsers and devices. Take the time to learn how to use the administrative panel and update content yourself. All too often, small business owners will wait until the last second to tackle their website. Rushing this process can yield inferior results, a lack of adequate time to test, and paying extra premiums. However, giving adequate time and letting the process unfold naturally makes all the difference. It’s a good idea to tackle your new website or your redesign at least 3 months before you want it launched live to the public. This gives you plenty of time for design, development and testing without having to feel under pressure to get the website launched as soon as possible.The Healthcare.gov website failed in this regard in epic proportions. A huge reason for its troubled launch was due the government allocating only a few weeks to test this massive website, resulting in a giant (unsurprising) blame game from all parties involved.

In the end, I do believe the Healthcare.gov website is going to get its glitches and kinks worked out. But there are definite lessons small business owners can take away from the government’s failures which can help to make their own web development experience better. By keeping it simple, using existing frameworks, setting aside a proper budget, creating a sandbox, and setting aside time to test, you can make your website development experience much more pleasant than the current fiasco in Washington.

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