One of the most important aspects of software development is determining who your audience is and building an interface that caters to their needs. This isn't necessarily an easy task. What's even more difficult to ascertain is whether your application satisfies your audience's needs. There's a technique that many app and website developers use called A/B testing. Multiple versions of a UI are presented to users, metrics are gathered, and the app developer puts the “best” face forward. Recently, I participated in a real-world A/B test of sorts, while helping book COVID-19 vaccine appointments for friends and family. Here's my story:

In late 2020, a scientific miracle occurred. In less than a year, multiple vaccines were developed and began trials. These trials were completed with overwhelming success. Now that the world has vaccines, the next hard problem is distributing them to literally billions of people worldwide.

Here in the United States, vaccine distribution has been left up to the states. Each state determined distribution priorities using guidance from the Unites States Centers for Disease Control (the CDC). In Texas, distribution is provided via priority groups. The first group, known as 1A, is made up of health care workers and the elderly. My wife is a health care worker and received her first vaccination in late December of 2020. Yay, science!

In early 2021, priority group 1B was opened. This group is made up of people with co-morbidities that can be affected drastically by COVID. For example, this group included people with diabetes, COPD, asthma, and other ailments. In the past weeks (April 2021) as the supply of vaccine increased, more priority groups have opened up.

Once you make it into a priority group, the next challenge is getting an actual vaccination appointment. There are multiple paths to getting a vaccine appointment. One is to get on different waiting lists at various public health systems or hospitals. The other avenue is to find appointments on literally dozens of different scheduling/registration systems. This is where some geeks in shining armor came in. I soon learned about a Slack channel where some folks put together a system of bots that monitored sites and alerted when appointments became available. I joined this channel and went to work getting appointments for friends and family. I wasn't alone. Numerous people were helping schedule appointments for people with their own challenges getting appointments (no computer, age, health, etc.). This is a KEY point here. The people making the appointments were booking for OTHER people.

There's another secret: understanding the optimal time to open appointment slots. This is where being an insomniac has helped me score appointments. It seems that a lot of slots opened up in the wee hours of the morning, usually between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. This has been my “secret sauce,” as I've been able to get about six people appointments. One thing I learned is just how different these experiences can be, depending on where you find an appointment.

Figure 1: Get vaccinated!
Figure 1: Get vaccinated!

The appointments I've booked came from two different organizations. The first being HEB, which is the dominant grocery store chain here in Central Texas. The other is CVS, which is a large drug store chain here in the United States. The difference between the registration systems for these two sites is striking.

Right now, before you continue, which one do you think has the most optimal site for registering? If you guessed CVS, you'd be incorrect. The optimal site for registering these appoints belongs to the grocery store chain. Really, the grocery store has a better interface? It comes down to the information being captured on scheduling at HEB, which gathers the following: name, email address, birthday, and phone number. That's it! You get an email with a link to a PDF form requesting more details. You have the option of printing this form and taking with you to your appointment.

As for CVS, let's just say that their registration process is much longer. It's around four pages of data and questions. The first page is basically the same demographic information as HEB (name, email, etc.). The second and third pages are insurance information (provider, group numbers, etc.) The fourth page is a series of half a dozen health-related questions. The experience couldn't be more different.?Here's the real rub. In both cases the vaccination staff will still need to verify that all the information provided is correct. So why not just request the detailed information during the appointment. The “attempt” to capture information at scheduling time is rather pointless and for some parts of the audience being served, inconvenient. Remember, some folks requesting appointments are older, or infirm, or not the person booking the appointment at all. The goal is to schedule an appointment. Capture the minimal amount of information and move on.

So why is this the point of my editorial? Well, thank you for asking. Let's go back to the earlier part where I talked about the Slack channel and how people book appointments for OTHER people. Let that sink in. I'm not booking for myself; I'm making appointments for OTHER people. Did I mention that I was booking for OTHER people? Good! Let's move on. In many situations, I didn't have or know the myriad of health details for the person I was scheduling. Nor did I have their detailed insurance info. So, what did I do? I made it up. I just entered information into the fields where I didn't know the answer. This is where the CVS interface was pointless. This incorrect information would need to be validated at the appointment anyway. This begs the question. Why ask for this information in the first place? This is because the audience for this information isn't the person getting the appointment - it's CVS. The CVS interface is company-focused and not user-focused. They're attempting to collect information to help THEMSELVES vs. the actual USERS of their systems.

This is where you, as the designer of systems, need to seriously consider who the audience is that you're trying to serve with your applications. Are you serving the users of your applications, or are you serving yourself? As they like to say in the industry: Know your audience.

Image provided courtesy of John Kovalik ? 2021