Why Are Health Insurance Websites So Bad?
Three completely preventable examples and how to fix them.
Last month, I got a bill from my dentist that was much higher than I expected. I expected $0 because I had paid a co-pay at the office. Instead, the Explanation of Benefits politely informed me that I owed $815 on the two fillings I had replaced. There’s no way I owe $815, I thought. Let me check the website.
This dance plays out every few months, where some insurance need crops up, and I have to sort it out by logging in to the provider’s website. Without fail, it’s a process filled with annoyances caused by bad software. They’re things that irritate you at best and can ruin your day at worst.
So, I’d like to take a minute to call out a few of them. Here are three completely preventable examples of bad software and some ideas on how to fix them. Hopefully, the insurance companies take note (or reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org) and address glaringly obvious issues like these.
1. Legacy experiences are badly stitched together
As I clicked through the web experience of Delta Dental, I got bounced around between a newer, partially redesigned experience and what was obviously the older app they tried to replace (but didn’t finish). For example, I wanted to see the details of my coverage, so I clicked on “Benefits overview” and got this:
This page is awful. It has no real information! There’s a big bold headline — YOU HAVE DELTA DENTAL PPO — that tells me nothing. There is copy that isn’t helpful. Big images that say “Get ID card” and “Find a dentist” are clickable but don’t look like buttons (and neither of them have alt text, so they’re invisible to screen readers for low-vision users, ugh).
The stuff I need is behind another button: “Benefits details.” When I click that, I enter a wormhole and appear on a site from 12 years in the past that is clearly dated with early 2000s-era web design:
It has a completely different navigation. It does have the plan details I needed (in-network restorative procedures are covered at 90%, aha!). Still, it’s a winding road to get there, and there’s no way to get back to the original site.
Aetna, our health insurance provider, is the same way. When I have to submit a claim, you’d think there’d be a form on the Claims section of the site, right? Nope. You have to go to the Message Center, which has a telltale sign of a legacy site: a domain name switch from health.aetna.com to member.aetna.com. Here, it’s the same story. The Message Center has an entirely different nav, a very dated design, and absolutely no way to get back to the newer site I initially logged into.
2. Submitting claims is obfuscated and unnecessarily hard
Once I get to the Message Center, Aetna does not make it clear at all that you can submit a claim. In fact, when you send a message and select “A claim” for the topic, the FAQ on the side suggests you have to print out a paper form and mail it:
This just isn’t true; you can submit a claim by filling out the electronic form. But the form itself is woefully inadequate. You can’t specify multiple dates of service or providers, and file attachments don’t display when attached. You also have to click “Upload” after selecting your file, or it won’t actually attach. The whole process feels intentionally vague and unclear.
Delta Dental is no better: It asks you to fill out a PDF, print it, get your dentist to sign it (!), and mail it to a processing center. This process must be rife with inefficiency on the processing side, and there’s a massive improvement to be had here with a modest investment in digital.
3. So painfully slow
It’s 2021, and we still have to say that speed is a feature. You must pay care and attention to site speed and responsiveness right alongside feature development and UX design. There’s no excuse. Yet, this is the login experience on Aetna’s site:
It takes more than 20 seconds and six different kinds of loading indicators before we see a screen that we can interact with. This makes no sense. Guess how long it takes to log in with the Aetna app on my iPhone? Four seconds (and only one loading indicator). The technical limitation is an overworked architecture that nobody bothered to fix.
Loading indicators are, in general, a good thing. They tell us, the users, not to get up and walk away from our computers because the system is doing something and the page we want will be ready soon. The websites for these insurance companies, though, show a loading indicator on every click. I see page “skeletons” on every click. On top of the sluggish feeling of the site, the page transitions are jarring. It’s a more contemporary version of the Flash of Unstyled Text.
Solution #1: Bolster your platform, API-first. My biggest piece of advice to these companies would be to invest in API. Once you have a reliable, fast server-side architecture delivering member data, you can properly invest in designing and building a really great end-user experience. A good API layer will also more seamlessly mask disconnected underlying systems — much better to do it here than in the interface exposed to the end users.
Start with your API, and then consider a few other solutions I recommend.
Solution #2: Focus on your core problems, not your homepage. For example, claims processing is core to insurance. Instead of putting a new coat of paint on the first page of the member portal and adding no value, companies need to spend their time and energy optimizing the key flows that every member will interact with. We took a similar approach in our work with the MTA: Identify the core usage patterns and focus your efforts on them.
Solution #3: Constantly optimize for speed. For every feature you build or legacy component you replace, add a parallel sprint working to keep things fast. This was a critical part of the trading platform we built with Goldman Sachs. As we added new bits of functionality, we regularly doubled back to revisit the load time of each view and made sure we were maintaining responsiveness.
Solution #4: Sweat the details of the content. When we worked on the new Mailchimp Developer Experience, we spent a lot of our time making sure the words were right. We knew it was important to get our users (developers) exactly what they needed with no friction.That meant clear, concise copywriting and great content design. Improving the content and its presentation on the insurance websites would make a huge improvement on its own.
It turns out that I didn’t owe any additional money for my tooth re-fillings. Once I tracked down the benefits information, I was able to call my dentist and they confirmed that I only owed the co-pay I had already paid. I still left the whole experience feeling like I usually do, annoyed. Hopefully it’s better next time.
Chris LoSacco (he/him) is President at Postlight. If you want to talk about a challenge at your org, drop him a line at email@example.com.
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Story published on Sep 15, 2021.