Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce in the wake of the federal health insurance marketplace rollout. In that testimony, she admitted – albeit indirectly – that the launch of Healthcare.gov was “a debacle.”
Regardless of your political persuasion or whether you see The Affordable Care Act as a good thing or not, let’s unpack this topic and see what we can learn from it.
The Value of Testing
Whether the project costs $600 million or $600, there is always something to test. With any IT project – like a web site – the variables are staggering. Today’s desktops and mobile devices throw different screen sizes, resolutions, browsers, and operating systems at designers and developers. The sheer number of potential configurations is painful.
This wasn’t always the case, but systems architects, designers, and developers know this. As a result, they test now more than ever. And, luckily, there are lots of tools to help.
According to testimony before Congress, there wasn’t “adequate end-to-end testing” of Healthcare.gov. Had there been adequate testing, much of the negative impact for the administration – not to mention anger among the citizenry – could have been avoided.
Over the Waterfall
Testing is great – especially “end-to-end testing.” And, there is satisfaction in getting a project just right before testing and releasing it. Until recent years, that was just the way it was done. This process continues to be referred to as waterfall methodology in manufacturing, construction, and software development.
But, we all have worked with the waterfall model before in projects. And, by “project,” I don’t just mean web sites. Branding initiatives, brand renewal programs, marketing plans, sales drives, promotions, and new product lines . . . all may get well tested at some point in the process, but they often go before real users once a lot of money has already been spent.
And, sometimes, over that waterfall’s edge you – and your project – go.
The Value of Small Batching
I was first really introduced to the concept of small batching with a book called The Lean Startup. Both the concept and book opened my eyes to some surprising realities.
For example, it’s OK that your project isn’t perfect before rolling it out. In fact, you don’t want every piece in place and everything to be perfect when you do. In all probability, those pieces of the project that you fight for may in the end be changed based on future information.
In fact, there are ways to break almost every project down into small, relatively inexpensive tests or experiments to find out what works – and doesn’t – well before any end-to-end testing.
Consider the example of a pricing change to a product line. Sure, you can hire an outside organization to lead a price study. You can also go by your gut. Or, you can start by having meaningful conversations with existing customers or pitching it to a very small sampling of customers within or across industries.
It’s surprising how much a simple first step, like having meaningful conversations with customers, is overlooked.
The Minimum Viable Product
Years ago, the concept of a minimum viable product would have been laughable to me. Why wouldn’t you always put your best foot forward? Instead, the idea of a minimum viable product is to get your most basic functionality out and get feedback. No bells and whistles, period. In a $600 million project, that minimum viable product might cost $60,000.
Sound ridiculous? I thought it was at first. Technology has progressed in so many ways that sources for testing and feedback are plentiful and inexpensive. Most importantly, conversations can help shape future decisions – we just have to be willing to ask questions and listen.
So, in order to learn something from Healthcare.gov that we can apply in marketing and business, it is necessary to go deeper than just the idea of beta testing. What are small batch tests that could have occurred first? What would be the feature set in a minimum viable product?
These same questions can probably be asked about something – a marketing plan or even a household DIY project – that you have underway right now.
I can’t promise you’ll save $600 million, but you may be surprised.