Why Did Covidtests.gov Work When So Many Government Sites Fail?

Eric Egan February 10, 2022
February 10, 2022

Using lessons learned from previous “.gov” rollouts and making thoughtful considerations on technical design and customer experience, covidtests.gov demonstrates encouraging progress for federal e-government efforts. 

Cast your mind back a short time ago to early January 2022. A COVID-19 variant collectively frustrates the country yet again. The holiday season was another strange one. People everywhere were trying frantically to get tested, receive their booster shots, or both. At-home tests were as sparse as toilet paper in spring 2020. Free drive-thru rapid-test clinics across the country had cars backed up for blocks. 

But then, on January 14, an announcement from the Biden administration: American households would be able to order up to four free at-home rapid tests through a new website, “covidtests.gov.” As relieving as this news was, many Americans have distinct memories of government websites falling short. Healthcare.gov is an easy target, of course, but let’s not forget the recent issues during the pandemic with state health benefits or unemployment insurance that required people to navigate complicated websites that were never designed to handle heavy user traffic. How could users expect the federal government to handle distributing millions of tests to people’s mailboxes? 

And yet, as it turns out, covidtests.gov is pretty good. My own experience was one of pleasant surprise, noting straightforward screen flow, simple language, and minimal time spent on the website; it turns out many people completed the request form “in well under a minute, without feeling burdened or mistreated.” People reported successfully accessing and completing the order on their phones or through different browsers. And apparently, capacity hasn’t been an issue. Covidtests.gov is one of the most visited pages according to analytics.usa.gov, getting over one million hits in a single day when it went live and with another analysis tracking over 700 thousand concurrent users at one point. 

Yes, it’s essentially just a single-form webpage. Yes, it’s easier to build a basic website from scratch for a specific purpose than to overhaul healthcare.gov. And even then, the rollout certainly wasn’t flawless. As others have reported, there were issues with multi-family units and PO boxes. But it’s a winning result overall when it comes to government websites. Or, as Wired reporter Steven Levy put it, “it worked—a conclusion verified by the lack of outrage at its performance.”

So, what made covidtests.gov different this time around? For one, the federal government has learned a lot since 2013. The United States Digital Service (USDS) was created as a result of the healthcare.gov debacle with the mission “to deliver better government services to the American people through technology and design.” Having a dedicated group of technologists that makes concerted efforts to assess, plan, and design a digital product certainly didn’t hurt covidtests.gov. Secondly, by looping in the right stakeholders in the planning stage—in this case, USDS, the White House, the United States Postal Service (USPS), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—the covidtests.gov product team was able to work collaboratively to come up with the best approach. Finally, the Biden administration issued an executive order last December on “transforming federal customer experience and service delivery,” and it appears USDS took that to heart with its measured approach to covidtests.gov.

Part of this approach meant realizing how vital the address component was to ensure that the tests were sent to correct mailing locations. The USPS has a proven address search and verification feature that citizens use daily, so the product team decided to embed USPS’s functionality into the ordering process. USDS also knew capacity was a potential concern, with this new site functioning as a digital Black Friday for a product that consumers are desperate for and is free. As such, the covidtests.gov team decided to utilize proven commercial products like those from Amazon Web Services designed to deal with this type of heavy traffic. And despite its simple appearance, a lot of back-end analysis ensured that the customer experience (CX) was fast and straightforward while the website handled traffic without crashing. Paul Smith, one of the people tasked with fixing healthcare.gov, explained that the “UI [user interface] simplicity and architecture reinforce each other,” creating a quick, easy-to-use digital experience. 

So, what lessons can the federal government and other agencies take from the success of this project?

  • Get the right stakeholders in the room—healthcare.gov fell entirely to an agency (HHS) without the means or expertise to deliver such a complex digital product.
  • Expand the role of groups like USDS that collaborate and share knowledge across agencies.
  • Focus on CX as a design consideration separate from the service or logistic component of the website.
  • Leverage proven commercial products and cloud hosting to shift some technical and maintenance burdens away from in-house federal staff.
  • Replicate good project management practices—covidtests.gov was completed in three weeks with a small team that had ownership over the development timeline.

The success of covidtests.gov is great in and of itself for the goal of combatting the ongoing pandemic, but it’s also a hopeful moment that the federal government is starting to “get it” when it comes to citizen-facing digital services. There are areas to improve, no doubt, but the federal government is continuing to gather best practices that can help shift a sprawling bureaucracy from analog to digital. Federal agencies should continue to focus on what worked with covidtests.gov to replicate and scale its success.

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Why Did Covidtests.gov Work When So Many Government Sites Fail?