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Software Testing and HealthCare.Gov

Software glitches happen every day to plenty of companies and systems, but every so often the mainstream media covers one that’s a real shocker. Lately,...

Software glitches happen every day to plenty of companies and systems, but every so often the mainstream media covers one that’s a real shocker. Lately, what’s everyone been talking about? You guessed it: Obamacare. We can’t really imagine that any of you are unfamiliar with this scandal, unless you recently relocated to Antarctica, but just in case, we’ll give you a brief rundown. Included in the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” was a health care marketplace where the uninsured could shop online for the different insurance packages that were available to them based on various criteria, like their location, family size, and income.

The reason the marketplace was such an important part of the legislation is because anyone who can afford healthcare but doesn’t have it by 2014 risks paying a fine. That’s why the marketplace system is getting so much attention – as the main method for people avoiding this fee, it had to be constructed quickly (in time for the new year) in a way that would enable it to handle huge levels of traffic in the last few months of 2013 and beyond. The idea was for hundreds of thousands of users to log onto the website at any one time without lag or crashes.

What actually happened? The ACA launched at the beginning of October and so did the marketplace, but the intended website was very different from what visitors actually experienced, which was riddled with bottlenecks and confusing error messages. Of course, this has spread cries of conspiracy (“The government doesn’t want us to see how expensive the plans actually are!”), but the pure fact of the matter is that the website was created under extreme programmer duress and released after far less testing than a system of this size should undergo. For example, integration testing was only provided by a different department within the government, not an external organization; it’s important that developers aren’t testing their own systems, because of the biases and insider understanding they’ll certainly have. It’s far better for testing to be performed by experienced private groups or contractors, because they’ll look at the system with fresh eyes and are more likely to find bugs, to say nothing of their testing-specific expertise.

On top of that, the Associated Press recently reported that the development team was concerned about their unrealistic deadlines and the website’s insufficient pre-launch testing, which reported website crashes with as few as several hundred simulated users accessing the website at once. Here are the problems with that from a testing standpoint: an unrealistic development timeline forces developers to comply with strict deadlines, jeopardizing the quality of the finished system. It would have been better for the website launch to be postponed until further testing had been completed, as was recommended by independent consultants who reviewed the system before the launch.

The pure fact of the matter is that the website was created under extreme programmer duress and released after far less testing than a system of this size should undergo.

It’s obvious as a casual observer that the government almost completely neglected usability testing, a hugely important but oft-overlooked aspect of the testing experience. All of these problems could have been avoided with better, more complete quality assurance testing. The role of quality assurance is to determine flaws like these, and performance issues like load, endurance, and stress testing should be staples of every organization’s web testing regimen. Bugs in this area are usually small, but sometimes we see monsters like these that compromise the usability of an entire system. This leads to big problems for the organizations which need these systems in order to properly function on a daily basis.

President Obama assured the public that the issues would be resolved, saying that, “Nobody is madder than me about the fact that the website is not working as well as it should, which means it’s gonna get fixed.” It’s also possible that the deadline by which Americans must have health care may be extended until the end of March due to the glitches with sign ups. It’s great to see the people in charge taking responsibility and owning up to the issues, and it doesn’t seem like there will be many long-term negative side effects to the American people, either.

However, there are questions left unanswered, the most important of which is, “when will the bugs be fixed?” The government tells us it will happen soon, and while much of America is probably wondering when “soon” will be, for our part, we’re mostly just wondering if they need any help. After all, we ARE the US’s largest quality assurance company. Mr. President, if you need some help with web testing, you know who to call.

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