In recent news we have heard a lot about the problems with websites providing health services and information. As a web developer and researcher on the topic of health and technology, here are my ideas on how these websites can serve the needs of their users, and a few ways they won’t. Important factors are trust, a personal connection, and the ability of the user to achieve their goal.
Websites like Healthcare.gov have an advantage because people trust them. Results of my 2012 study show that websites with a .gov or .org extension are considered more credible than websites ending in .biz or even .com (which might mean ulterior motives like advertising). Even if a person has a bad experience once or twice on a .gov website, they might be more than likely to return to use the website. Just like going into a trusted brick-and-mortar store, like a local hardware store- I might have a bad experience with a sales person or an item I cannot find- but I will usually try them again before going to a store I have no history with. Small issues might be compared to ‘breaking the ice’ with someone in my network as opposed to venturing outside and trying the unknown (and less trustworthy). Factors that uphold credibility include quality information, testimonials, an approval marker, like the HON code, good website design, and professional links.
When I walk into the local hardware store, I like to be acknowledged, and after a while, asked if I need help. A live, knowledgeable person ready to help is crucial. What is the best way to make a personal connection online? Features like a live chat and fast, personalized responses can make a connection too. The web developer needs to get to know the customer. When designing websites, understanding the user is achieved through target audience research that might include development of user personas and use case scenarios. Where does the average user live? Where do they shop? If a person thinks about going into a store or using a website, what is their ultimate goal, and what is the quickest way from point A to point B?
A great way to connect with people online- on a personal level- is through games and cartoons. Provide a short cartoon video or game about how the website can be used, how easy it is to use, and how users can accomplish their task right away. Games and cartoons relate on a personal while also raising self efficacy to not only take control over the important matters in one’s own life, like health, but to use technology effectively. People need information about how they can control their health in order to see the value and benefit of initiatives like those pushed through healthcare.gov without being confused by complex topics, like politics, or poor functionality and usability. An important tissue like the Affordable Care Act cannot be obfuscated by website functionality.
Sense of Purpose
It is always irritating to walk into a store or be on the phone with a sales person and then be interrupted to take a survey, listen to an advertisement, or partake in some other activity that has nothing to do with my original goal. Combining a very complex task like health care and providing a website that is easy-to-use is a tricky thing. Many website owners ignore their online ‘store front’- but to the user, this is like running a successful business in a dilapidated shack. No business owner in their right might would run their business out of a crumbling old building, but it happens all too often online! Website owners neglect and misuse their websites, and customers feel a sense of mistrust and displeasure when their needs as a user are ignored.
People want to be proactive online, feel in control, and like they are accomplishing something. Like my study showed, the higher the degree of locus of control (or sense of control over the events that effect them in their lives, like health), the more likely they will use websites providing health information and services and perceive this use as positive. Paramount to the success of websites like these is related support in the form of advertising, physician advice and informational support, like through brochures. A lack of sense of control is like giving a person without a driver’s license the keys to a race car. They might stand there and look at it, or make a poor decision. Without support, people will be confused, suspicious, and distracted by questions on a health website that do not have purpose. Instead of following through with a purchase or seeking out information they can use, they will stop to wonder- what are they doing with my private information? Why can’t I find out about my options and they prices right away? Why can’t I just browse for what I want to buy and then buy it? They will be less likely to assess their website use experience as positive and follow through with finding quality information and using services, like purchasing health insurance.
-Dr. Natalie Hruska received her Ph.D. from Walden University in 2012.