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Okay, maybe it is partly incompetence

I still think that the problem Healthcare.gov is supposed to manage is such a monster that it would be a daunting challenge for anybody, no matter how competent. That said, it's looking more and more like incompetence may have played a part in the site's epic fail. And I don't just mean normal incompetence on the part of government bureaucrats.

How hard was this, really?

I myself tried to sign up for an account. With just a little difficulty, I got through several screens where I provided my name, home state, email address, and then, on the last screen, I made up an account name and password. I hit submit or save, and got this:


"Unavailable"? They couldn't have told me this before I wasted 10 minutes?

Now, when I was expressing my (tentative) sympathy for the programmers yesterday, I was thinking about how hard the hard parts of this problem must be. I mean, this is the system created by a many-thousand page bill whose architect herself said "We have to pass the bill to find out what's in it." So, that sounds like the sort of absurdly complicated problem that only the folks who brought you the Income Tax Code could create.

But creating a mere account — that's one of the easy parts. It doesn't get into the complexities at all. This is just a matter of managing values from six or seven simple fields (personal name, state, email, account name, password) and creating a single record.

I understand that there are important security issues to be dealt with. I also understand that they were expecting a lot of traffic. And I know it's theoretically possible that the programming is first rate and that the problem lies with the hardware. Whatever. This preliminary part of the process should have been working a couple of years ago.

Verification? We don't need no stinkin' verification!

The first thing the signup process asks you for is your name and email address. You're asked to enter the email address twice. This of course proves only that you're able to type or paste the same wrong email address two times in a row. It doesn't prove that you are using an email address that you own and that you have access to.

Anyway, you enter the email twice, and then you're on to creating an account name and password. I'm just curious. What happens if somebody — let's say, simply as a prank — creates an account for somebody else, that is, using their email address but also creating a username and password to go with that email?

Grammar counts

Let me add something I've not seen mentioned elsewhere. One of the other things I noted in my attempt was that the site's instructions are not written in proper English.


The instruction reads: "The username is case sensitive. Choose a username that is 6–74 characters long and must contain..." Yikes. Any of the following would be grammatically correct and helpful:

  • "Choose a username that is 6–74 characters long and contains..."
  • "Choose a username that is 6–74 characters long. Your username must contain..."
  • "Your username must be 6–74 characters long and must contain..."

But what they wrote shouldn't be accepted in a third grade classroom. I certainly wouldn't have accepted it from my freshmen at the University of Houston when I was teaching.

And nobody caught that? Nobody read the site for basic English mistakes?

Note also that the username that I offered ("williamporter") appears to satisfy the instructions — as well as I can understand them — but was flagged as invalid anyway. That is, "williamporter" is 6–74 characters long and does contain "a lowercase or capital letter, a number, or one of [the symbols]."

I tried three user names before I accidentally hit on one that worked. I think what they wanted to say is that the username must be a certain length and, in addition to one or more letters or numbers, must contain one of the symbols. The valid username I finally stumbled upon was all lowercase letters except for a single period (".").

There are many other signs that the site simply hasn't been edited. The title of this page is "Create a Marketplace account." Seems to me either that "Account" should also be capitalized or that "marketplace" should not be. Not also that "username" is not capitalized when it's used immediately underneath the field, but is capitalized in the error message ("Important: This is not a valid Username").

By the way, I can't imagine why the username is case sensitive or why it must contain a symbol. Usernames and account names typically are not case sensitive. (They are in Unix but not in Windows or even in Mac OS X, which is based on Unix.) I don't recall seeing a system that made usernames this hard. The common practice on the Web these days is that usernames are supposed to be easy and passwords are supposed to be long and hard.

You bet I'm superficial

Yes, these are very very superficial criticisms. After all, I was only able to see about four pages of the site. But as I said at the beginning, this is all the really easy stuff. Maybe it gets much better once you're finally inside. But I wouldn't bet on it.

Dear Government...

I lost a lot of my sympathy for the programmers when I heard that the cost for this lemon was about two-thirds of a billion (with a B) dollars. 

I would like the government to know that my associates and I could have created a non-working site every bit as bad as this one, and we would have been happy to do it for $100 million — saving the taxpayers of the United States half a billion dollars. Kathleen, call me first next time, okay?

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