Comment: Covid.gov wesbite not one-stop-shop Biden promised

The website is difficult to navigate, offers links to old information and is far too late to the game.

By Scott Duke Kominers / Bloomberg Opinion

More than two years into a global pandemic that has claimed millions of lives, the U.S. government has finally launched what it calls a “one-stop shop” website for resources on covid-19 services, mitigation and treatment options. While the page — covid.gov — links to the existing tool for ordering rapid test kits, it mostly just aggregates information.

That’s a far cry from the one-stop shop the Biden administration led us to believe was in the offing. But even as an information tool, covid.gov gets a failing grade.

The instructions for finding and getting free masks, for example, are labyrinthine: Clicking on “Learn more about masks and where to get them” just takes you to the standard Centers for Disease Control explainer on masks. That page is out of date; as of this writing, it was last updated in August 2021 and still prominently features an illustration of cloth masks rather than the more heavily protective N95 and KN95 models. And it’s very difficult to navigate.

Among the many different links, one does indeed promise to help you locate free masks. But once you get to that locator, you learn that: “This tool shows a list of pharmacies that provide free masks (N95 respirators). It does not show their current inventory.”

I initially tried to use the link on mobile, and found only one distribution location listed in my ZIP Code. I later tried to search again on my computer, and discovered that more locations were listed, but an invisible (and thus unnoticeable) scrolling interface was required to see the others. In any event, trying to contact one of the listed pharmacies led me to a long phone tree, at the end of which there was no information about current availability.

Meanwhile, the administration has made a big deal out of its “test to treat” program, under which covid-19 tests and — if appropriate — treatments can be obtained in a single visit to a pharmacy or clinic. But as Dania Palanker of Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms has illustrated, the process for finding these locations through the covid.gov portal is even more convoluted, requiring looping through many seemingly similar steps and entering the same information repeatedly.

Especially right now, with government funding for vaccines, testing and treatment under heavy strain, it’s all the more important to make efficient use of what we have. And poor site design will reduce the use of the few resources available.

That’s what we saw with the 2013 rollout of Healthcare.gov, in which flawed design initially blocked tens of thousands of people from enrolling. Similarly, an attempt at a national covid vaccine scheduling system was so nonfunctional that most states abandoned it; but not before it left some clinics having to keep track of appointments on paper forms.

It’s a web design rule of thumb that the more steps visitors have to navigate on a site, the more likely they are to leave before completing a transaction. I’ve heard this summarized colloquially as “every click kills,” a maxim that takes on a far graver meaning in the context of a pandemic. When users drop off the site, they literally increase the danger to themselves and others.

This is all the more frustrating because designing a covid resource information platform shouldn’t be that difficult. Earlier in the pandemic, teams of volunteers and even individuals built tools to find vaccine appointments within days. Project N95, a national clearinghouse for personal protective equipment, was launched in early 2020 and operational almost immediately. In the case of covid.gov, even just running a public contest to make the page could potentially have led to a better design.

But instead, as Tinglong Dai of Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School has described, the U.S. develops platforms like this through complex procurement processes that are slow and expensive; and that favor established government contractors rather than more agile technology companies. And apparently they pay far too little attention to user experience design and product testing, both of which are essential in technology platform development.

The government needs partners from the tech world, and should directly employ people with product management expertise who can be hands-on in guiding this sort of work. And when building technology platforms, it must emphasize iterative development; revising the design and other specifications after performing user experience tests and gathering feedback.

Now into the third year of covid-19, we also need more than just information that should have been available long ago. As far as the distribution of masks goes, at least, the government could have just mailed them to people directly. Such a plan has already been considered, and we’ve put infrastructure in place for mailing tests. Yet the government chose to route the masks through pharmacies and clinics instead, introducing an unnecessary extra layer to the process.

As with most of the other recent national efforts to address the pandemic, covid.gov comes far too late and offers far too little. We can do better.

Scott Duke Kominers is the MBA Class of 1960 Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and a faculty affiliate of the Harvard Department of Economics. Previously, he was a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and the inaugural research scholar at the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics at the University of Chicago.

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