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Is The State COVID-19 Website Helping Users? One Designer Says It's 'Overpromising'

Pennsylvania Department of Health Website
The state health department website shows vaccine providers, but doesn't help schedule appointments, which is leaving many eligible to get vaccinated with frustration.

On today's program: Designer and Carnegie Mellon University instructor Karen Kornblum explains how the state’s COVID-19 website could be improved as more and more people seek vaccines; Those with Phase 1A eligibility are having a hard time scheduling their vaccination, and reporter Kiley Koscinski explains how they’re enlisting family and friends to make an appointment. 

Despite its appealing design, the state COVID-19 website could be improved to help with vaccinations
(0:00 — 7:58) 

The state’s coronavirus vaccine rollout caused a lot of confusion, from figuring out what phase someone is in, to the struggle of scheduling an appointment online. 

Those using the Pennsylvania Department of Health COVID-19 vaccination website complain about it being difficult to navigate. 

Karen Kornblum is a web designer and associate teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute. She says the state COVID-19 website is attractive but doesn’t meet the needs of people who are visiting the site: to schedule a vaccine.

“I often tell my students, ‘No amount of good design can make bad content usable,’” says Kornblum. 

The site itself has information such as how to find out if one is eligible to get the vaccine, and a map of vaccine providers throughout the Commonwealth. 

However, the map doesn’t say if the provider has vaccines available in real-time, nor is there any way to directly schedule an appointment from the state website. One has to contact the appropriate provider to see if appointments are even available. 

Some have asked the state to create a centralized portal, but Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said doing so would present significant technical hurdles. Kornblum agrees, saying getting such infrastructure in place at this point in time could delay vaccine distribution. 

“Getting that infrastructure in place is quite a bit more complicated than you think. It would mean all of these pharmacies and healthcare providers, they would all need to be using the same language and using the same information paths to be speaking back and forth,” says Kornblum. “That can’t happen overnight. Ideally, that would be happening over the last year.”

Kornblum says if the first principle of good design is to represent content truthfully, then the state website could be made more useful by making it obvious what can and cannot be accomplished on the site.

“The [state] website has a look of finish and simplicity, but they’re overpromising for something they can’t deliver because of these more complicated problems.” 

Elderly, eligible Phase 1A COVID-19 vaccine recipients struggle to book appointments online
(8:05 — 12:29)

When the state expanded phase 1A of its COVID-19 vaccination plan last month, the number of Pennsylvanians who became eligible swelled.  Many new phase 1A members are people over the age of 65. 

90.5 WESA’s Kiley Koscinski reports, since most all vaccine appointments are booked online, many of the state’s elderly have been left in the dust.

How are eligible residents getting COVID-19 vaccines, despite limited supply? With lots of help and strategy
(12:34 — 18:00) 

Facing dwindling appointment slots, some Pennsylvanians have taken matters into their own hands to get themselves or their eligible friends and family a COVID-19 vaccine.

WESA reporter Kiley Koscinski says one Pittsburgher started a Facebook page to try and help others with making appointments and is now even organizing other logistics like rides.

“Family members of those elderly who either don’t own a computer, don’t have internet access or have a computer but use it for simpler things, they’re all relying on younger people who might even just type faster than them to get in and get the heavily demanded time slot,” says Koscinski. 

She spoke with over a dozen people who are in this situation: they’re eligible to get the vaccine but hit a wall when it comes to making the appointment.

Koscinski says in addition to having the technical skills to navigate to a site for a vaccine appointment, timing is key. 

“Some of the elderly I spoke to said that if they weren’t retired, this would be even harder for them because they have the extra time to scour online for appointments,” says Koscinski.

Some are even traveling across state lines to get vaccinated. “There’s no rule in place that someone can’t go to Ohio or even go to a different county in Pennsylvania to get the vaccine.” 

Most she spoke to, however, wished they didn’t have to jump through so many hoops and could simply book the vaccination appointment with their primary care physician. 

“The difficulty there is both approved vaccines require very sophisticated storage that a family care doctor might not have at their facility.”

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.


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