I’m into the third week of the UI (user interface) design course I am taking via Coursera called Human Computer Interaction. The lectures for this week include a discussion of some prototyping techniques to use to quickly create a mockup of the interface for your system. The objective is to have a prototype to put in front of users to see how they interact with it and identify issues early in the development cycle. One of the techniques is called the “Wizard of Oz” method.
The name is inspired by the movie of the same name in which the wizard is really just a small man behind a curtain who is pulling the levers to make something much bigger appear operational. This technique is really great for early evaluation of user interfaces because you don’t have to spend a lot of time solving complex issues in the backend. You just need to have an interface that looks somewhat realistic. A “wizard”, which is a person behind the scenes not usually visible to the users, operates the controls to make it appear as if an automated system is actually running everything.
Today I was reading a story at Natural News with the headline “Head fake! Is Healthcare.gov only an empty shell MOCKUP of a working Obamacare exchange?” and it struck me right away that maybe healthcare.gov really is just a mockup in a Wizard of Oz prototype fashion. All the evidence would seem to indicate that. Like the fact that the people in charge can’t even say how many people have signed up through the system. That kind of information just falls out of a real system. Maybe they don’t know because it really is just a mockup with a bunch of people behind the scenes pulling the levers and they have to poll all them and collate the information before they know.
Another reason to think it might just be a mockup is how quickly and thoroughly it has been overwhelmed. Seriously, any system designed for this purpose would have to consider this volume of users at initial roll-out. I don’t think there is really any system on the backend.
And finally, anyone who has done contract work for the government knows how ridiculous it is. It is standard procedure to have specifications thrown at you that are bloated, poorly written, and often times scoped by inexperienced people. Then the specs get changed repeatedly, causing rework and delays. Then there is a funding issue at the end of each fiscal year when funding runs out, the project has to shutdown, and then later gets restarted again when the funding finally comes through, but in the mean time the previous development team went off and found other jobs. I know this one well from my previous work at an aerospace firm where I was a project manager.
My guess is that the system was not completed in time due to all the vagaries of government contracting. The government was firmly committed to a roll out date, but the system wasn’t ready so they threw up a mockup. The wizards, of course, were immediately overwhelmed.