How to start improving your COVID-19 vaccination digital service

As part of our free COVID-19 consulting service, we’ve begun talking to state and local governments about their COVID-19 vaccination websites and the problems they’re facing in providing a successful experience to their users. From those conversations, we’ve gathered a short list of ways state and local governments can improve their services now and prepare for the upcoming phases of the vaccination rollout.

Convert phase eligibility criteria into a quick screener

Don’t assume that users know where they fall into your jurisdiction’s phased vaccination allocation scheme. Low-information users and even users who have been following the news closely may not know the precise eligibility criteria of each phase. Some government sites make users read and parse complex descriptions for each phase, or they provide too little context to help users choose the right phase.

Instead, take the eligibility criteria and create a short quiz from it that screens users into their right phase definitively. Structure the screener as a decision-tree, which dramatically reduces the number of questions you need to ask to sort the user into the proper phase. North Carolina’s Find My Vaccine Group tool is a great example of this idea.

Capture user interest instead of leading them to a dead end

At the end of your eligibility screener or any user flow, give users the option to provide their contact information so you can capture their interest in receiving a vaccine. Right now, many government vaccination websites leave users at a dead end with no path to receive more information or sign up for a vaccination if slots are full. The only thing for them to do is return later and try again, which frustrates users and puts additional load on government systems that are already overloaded.

By gathering people’s information and intent to be vaccinated, you solve a number of problems. People feel heard and that their request is acknowledged, instead of just being silently stymied. You give your agency contact information that will allow you to reach back out to interested people to schedule vaccinations when they become available. When paired with an eligibility screener, this data will give agencies critical insights into the demographics of people seeking vaccinations so they can adjust their rollout plans accordingly.

Once jurisdictions have that information, they can regularly contact people about when they’ll be eligible for a vaccine, quickly find people to take expiring or extra doses, and even provide a way for people to check that the government has registered their information and desire to be vaccinated. The vaccination process can be very stressful for people. Offering a way to check their status can lower that stress while freeing up government resources to keep vaccination digital services up and running.

When someone is eligible to receive a vaccination, information captured in their screener and intent form can be used to pre-populate clinical data for their vaccination, reducing paperwork and increasing the throughput of vaccination sites.

Invest resources now into SMS and phone experience

Equitable access to vaccinations is a critical piece of the rollout, and government digital services should be building tools to support broad access to vaccinations. A web-only form, especially one that doesn’t work well across browsers, will limit who can access vaccinations. On your web form, considering adding an “escape hatch” where people could call a number to get live help completing the online process. We’ve heard many stories about people needing to turn to friends and relatives to successfully complete the online process. This would offer that level of help to people who need it most.

In the initial phases of the rollout, government agencies should also look to their existing resources for reaching older folks in their community. Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs) and State Health Insurance Assister Programs (SHIPs) are already set up to provide high-touch services to critical populations and could be excellent resources for governments trying to reach older residents. Vaccination scheduling websites could have informational pages specifically designed for these types of organizations and resources to help them get seniors vaccinated. On, we’ve helped the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services design an experience specifically made for navigators and brokers helping people choose health insurance. Vaccination sites don’t need a separate experience, but agencies should consider “helpers” as an important type of user with distinct needs and design their services accordingly.

Anticipate what you’ll need in a few months

Right now, most jurisdictions are focused on vaccinating the most at-risk: seniors, health care workers, teachers, and other essential workers. Soon, the focus of the rollout will shift to a much larger and more diverse population. Agencies should start planning for that shift in user population now so they can build the necessary infrastructure and user experience to meet that population’s needs and the increased demand.

As the population shifts to a younger audience, agencies should ensure their web apps are fully responsive and work easily on all types of mobile devices. A younger audience is more likely to use their phones or tablets to access vaccination scheduling sites, and they’ll expect a service on par with consumer apps. Agencies should test their user experience on a broad range of devices and recruit users from their target populations to research any roadblocks they encounter in the vaccination scheduling process. As new groups become eligible for vaccinations, government agencies should expect a large increase in demand. Many websites are already failing to consistently serve requests under the moderate traffic they’re experiencing now. Agencies will need to invest in operations and site reliability now so they can plan for the coming demand.

Now is also the time to plan for how your digital services will help get vaccinations to hard-to-reach populations such as people who live in very remote areas, people with limited English, and those that are unsure about getting the vaccine. If you build informational resources, translated pages, and additional ways to access vaccination scheduling now, you’ll be better prepared to reach those populations down the road.

Have a vision for the platform

In an ideal world, government agencies would have had the support and resources to begin designing and building vaccination rollout services six months ago. Now, agencies are doing their best to manage heavy demand and get people vaccinated as fast as possible. While that work continues, agencies should be investing in a vision for a platform of services that supports the full vaccination process.

Vaccination will likely continue for the rest of 2021 as new people become eligible and many people require a second dose of the vaccine. There is still a lot unknown about the future of the pandemic, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility to think that people may require booster shots, vaccines for new strains of the virus, or even annual vaccinations like the flu.

This system will look different for specific government agencies, but the point is that agencies should develop their own product vision and then work backward to chart a path from their current state towards that vision. While the future is uncertain, government agencies are likely to need this type of vaccine distribution system again in the future.

The COVID-19 vaccination program is a tremendous undertaking, but it’s also a unique opportunity for government agencies to rebuild public trust in government institutions through a well-designed and well-administered vaccination program. If you are a government official and would like free consulting help on how to improve your COVID-19 website, please reach out to us and we’ll schedule a time to help.