If your company allows visitors to search your site for information,
you could learn a lot by examining one of the worst user interfaces
I’ve ever seen on the Web.
The illuminating example I’m going to tell you about is Medicare’s new
prescription drug price-comparison engine, which is sponsored by the
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS).
A Prescription for Confusion
Medicare beneficiaries — essentially, all Americans over 65 — are
eligible to purchase a new kind of prescription drug discount card on June 1.
To help seniors choose one of the 40 different national cards or 33 different
regional cards, all of which have wildly divergent prices and policies,
HHS launched on May 3 an ambitious price-comparison service at its
This service, I’ll grant you, is a well-intentioned attempt to help seniors
access an enormous database of
10 percent to 17 percent drug discounts offered by each card
provider and its participating pharmacies. But the implementation is such a
mishmash that I fear even computer experts will find it difficult to comprehend.
A price-comparison search engine such as Medicare’s should need the
answers to only two questions: “What prescription drugs do you buy?” and
“What ZIP code are you in?”
Instead, users of the service are confronted with a virtual interrogation:
• Just the Facts, Ma’am. The first page of the service asks
users such questions as whether they belong to “TRICARE,” “FEHPB,” or
“Medicare managed health plans (but not Medicare+Choice or Medigap).” Huh?
• Wasn’t I Just Here? Additional pages inquire about your
assets, your monthly income, and whether you’re an American Indian. These
points apparently qualify you to receive information about other programs,
although I never saw any pointers to such info in my tests of the service.
• All Right Already. After wading through several more screens,
you’re finally asked how far you’d be willing to travel to buy your
prescription drugs, whether you’d consider buying from a mail-order
pharmacy, and whether you’d accept identical, generic alternatives to
When you finally get to the price comparison, it’s in the form of a massive
chart that lists dozens of discount-card programs. You can select a comparison
of a smaller number of offerings. But when I did this for just five cards
in one metropolitan area, the result was an even longer 43-page chart with
identical information on hundreds of local pharmacy branches.
The Solution is Simplicity
I solicited the advice of Jakob Nielsen, principal of the
Nielsen Norman Group
and a respected user-interface expert. He’d never visited the Medicare
site before — but once he had, he wasn’t shy about expressing an opinion.
“There’s too much information being dumped on people,” Nielsen said.
“Even the first page is a huge, long, scrolling thing with a lot of
very complicated information.”
When I asked for a response from a public affairs officer at HHS’s Centers for
Medicare & Medicaid Services — his name can’t be published due to
departmental policy — he recommended a backup plan. “What
they need to do if they can’t navigate it [the site] is call 1-800-MEDICARE
[1-800-633-4227],” the spokesman said. “Those lines are pretty swamped right
now,” he added, apologetically. The best way to get through, I was advised,
is to call after 5 p.m. Eastern Time on weekdays.
Learning From Price Comparisons Gone By
The problems with Medicare’s user interface could have been avoided if the
agency had emulated today’s successful online travel sites. Popular services
such as Travelocity and Orbitz no longer even require you to enter the dates on
which you wish to travel. Just enter your origin and destination cities, and
the sites show you the cheapest dates on which you can book flights.
As an experiment, I re-designed the Medicare search results. The new interface
would require no input from a user other than a list of prescription drugs
purchased and a ZIP code. Modeled on Orbitz’ air-fare price grid, the result
is shown below:
In the fictional example above, questions about travel distance, generics, and
mail-order are unnecessary. The price grid answers these questions
automatically. Users can easily scroll down or click any price link to see
more details, if desired.
Actually, I discovered something like this that’s already on the Medicare site.
The first page of HHS’s questionnaire has a small link to a
Quick Search page. This alternative page asks only for your
ZIP code and the names of your prescription drugs, while still providing helpful
Unfortunately, Medicare’s Quick Search page leads you to the same overwhelming
chart of pharmacy branches and prices as before. But at least you get there a
According to the
San Francisco Chronicle, some problems with the service can
be traced to a no-bid contract the government gave to
a pre-existing price-comparison site, which now makes up the core of Medicare’s
The confusion is a shame, because seniors — and anyone else who happens
to check on prices through the Medicare service — can save hundreds or
thousands of dollars a year by finding the most inexpensive sources for their
prescription drugs. (You should also search for savings at such sites as
At the same time, your company might be able to save millions of
dollars by learning from the mistakes of the Medicare site — and not
making those same mistakes on pages that you expect actual customers to use.