Stop Blaming the Elderly for Vaccine Website Confusion

The Covid-19 vaccine rollout is picking up speed across the U.S., with more doses on the way. That’s unmitigated good news. However, one problem is unlikely to go away with increased supply, and may even get worse: the challenge of navigating the vaccine appointment websites. 

So far, problems with vaccine sign-ups have often been laid at the door of the users. Above all, we’re told — however sympathetically — those eligible for vaccines are too old to have computers or understand how to use the Internet.

There’s a principle of user-centered design that would be helpful to remember at this juncture: You don’t blame the user when they can’t use the product. You do not, as the founder of Lululemon did in 2013, blame quality problems with your pricey yoga pants on the bodies of your customers. You do not, as Steve Jobs did in 2010, tell the user that the new iPhone works fine, they’re just holding it wrong.

And we should not be telling ourselves that the problem with the vaccine rollout is that senior citizens just can’t use the Internet. Yes, those over 65 are less likely to use tech than their younger counterparts. Even so, by 2019 73% of them were online. Almost 60% had broadband. 

There’s a pretty big Internet gap between the baby boomers, many of whom are still employed, and the Silent Generation, now in or approaching their 80s and 90s. (By 2018, 60% of boomers had used Facebook, compared with just 37% of Silents.) Yet the problems with the vaccine rollout didn’t disappear when the 65- to 75-year-old group became eligible, despite their increased facility with all things digital.

That’s because many of these vaccine websites are just bad websites — no one would find them easy to use, regardless of their age. 

The sites crash when — predictably — a bunch of newly eligible people try to use them at the same time. They make you enter your personal information again and again. They have buggy drop-down menus. They’re hard to navigate. 

I’ve heard these complaints not only from the senior citizens eligible for vaccines, but from 20- and 30-somethings trying to help older people sign up. I know Millennials who’ve spent five or six hours apiece trying to book appointments for their parents. Is the problem that these Millennials don’t know how to use the Internet? I don’t think so.

It’s true that there are many older people who struggle with personal computers and the Internet, but it might behoove us to remember that this is the generation that invented both. And even these tech-savvy seniors aren’t finding it easy to book their shots. 

Consider my own dad, a 70-year-old MIT-trained engineer who has written software for 50 years. He’s the guy our entire extended family — including the Millennials! — relies on for tech support. And he has struggled to use his state’s appointment-booking website as much as anyone.

The websites will come under even more strain when vaccine eligibility opens up further, and more people start trying to book appointments. If the sites are not working for the relatively small group of people now eligible, how well will they function when demand soars?

It’s not as if the problems would be impossible to solve. Take one especially frustrating example: You click on an appointment slot, but by the time you enter your personal information, the slot has been snagged by someone else and you have to start the entire process over. Theaters and concert venues solved this problem years ago; we know, now, how to give users a five-minute grace period to complete their transactions. 

Or take the problem of too many people trying to sign up at the same time, crashing the website as users hit “refresh” for hours. Sports teams know how to get around this by operating a “virtual waiting room” that does the refreshing for you. 

Some websites ask the user to search for an open appointment location by location. This is woefully inefficient. Consumer dinner reservation apps like Open Table have figured out how to suggest nearby restaurants and dining slots if your first choice is full. Can vaccine appointment websites not borrow the same idea?

The kluginess of the official booking websites has spurred programmers in several states to build improved, unofficial versions in their free time. The speed of their efforts just goes further to prove how flawed the existing websites are, and how easily improvements might be made.

Olivia Adams of Massachusetts was on maternity leave from medical software company Athenahealth when she decided to spend about 40 hours — spread over three weeks, during her baby’s naps — building a website to simplify the appointment-booking process. “This was my first time making a complicated website by myself,” she told CNN

In New York, Airbnb engineer Huge Ma launched an improved vaccine website for $50 in under two weeks. Similar duct-tape-and-elbow-grease efforts exist in at least 12 other states, according to the Wall Street Journal. 

Journalists have also stepped in to try and help. NPR assigned a dozen people to painstakingly create a national vaccine-finder website – the kind of thing the federal government should have offered back at the beginning of January. The CDC has now — finally — partnered with vaccinefinder.org to provide some information on where vaccines are available. 

But information is limited — in part because states are constantly changing their complicated eligibility rules — and you can’t book an appointment on either of these sites. For that, you have to head back to the circa-1995 booking sites run by the state.

It’s a testament to the hard work and innovativeness of the scientific community that we have astoundingly effective vaccines being distributed roughly a year after Covid-19 was first discovered. It’s a national shame that this life-saving breakthrough is being hampered by something as mundane as scheduling software. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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