Sunday, November 27, 2005


In my efforts to be a good citizen for public sociology, I just wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times. Because the NYT has a policy of not publishing letters if they have any appearance elsewhere, I can't post it so long as there's hope they might publish it. But it was in response to this part of today's editorial:
All elderly Americans can use software on the Medicare Web site to help pick the best plan for them. Beneficiaries can type in such data as the drugs and dosages they use, the pharmacies they patronize, and the premiums and deductibles they would prefer. Presto, they get a list of plans that meet their criteria, the estimated annual cost of those plans, and, with another click of the mouse, suggestions on how to cut costs further by picking cheaper drugs. The Web site may be daunting to those who are inexperienced with the Internet, but it should offer their computer-savvy friends and advisers a valuable tool to sort through the options.
I will leave it as an exercise for JFW readers as to what might irritate me about this paragraph. Those aware of certain recent directions of my research have an advantage.


eszter said...

My research suggests that older users are less skilled at using the Internet. (In particular, they have a harder time finding content and doing so efficiently.) This means that even if an elderly American is online, they wouldn't necessarily know how to navigate the relevant Web sites.

I was at a conference recently where the NIH had a booth at the book exhibit. They seem to be running a campaign to publicize their Web site. It was nice to see that they're putting considerable effort into making sure that Web sites aimed at seniors are very user friendly (e.g. one can change size of font fairly easily (still a question whether seniors know how to do this even on that site, but there is a limit to what you can do); the site depicts the types of pictures that apparently appeal to seniors). I'm still not sure why the site address is instead of (seems easier to remember), but most users probably get to it through links anyway.

As to your own research, since you've been more interested in whether people are users in the first place, I suspect your focus was on how a lot of these people aren't online anyway. I won't say more regarding your specific twist on all this since it would be unfair given how much I know about your work in this area.

To be fair, they do mention that perhaps the senior can turn to people in their social networks to help. Then that's a whole other question as to who has the necessary networks to help them out in something like this.

jennifer said...

Well, from the point of view of my specialty, what irritates me is this sentence: "The Web site may be daunting to those who are inexperienced with the Internet, but it should offer their computer-savvy friends and advisers a valuable tool to sort through the options."

Most elderly Americans are not computer savvy, probably don't have access to a computer, and may not have friends and advisers to do this for them. "All elderly Americans," cannot access this information. How many elderly Americans are living in poverty, have never used a computer, or other problems that prevent them from accessing a computer? Is this the only place they can get this information? If so, it is leaving out a large chunk of the population.

From a designer's standpoint, the designer had a responsibility to make the site as user friendly as possible. It could hardly be a matter of "presto!" if they also describe the site as "daunting". There are certain accessibility requirements that need to be followed. It'd be interesting to see the site, and see if the site meets those requirements. I may have to take a look...

I hope they print your letter, but if they don't, please make sure you post it here. Thanks!
-jennifer n.

jennifer said...

Okay, I had to add this link:

Demo of the Medicare Drug Plan Finder Demonstration The instructions for watching the demo are insane. Right off the bat they ask people to change the screen resolution. "Click here to watch the demo" should be the lump sum of the instructions needed. And you have to scroll down to access the play, pause and stop buttons for the demo. Smart. People are going to need to see the demo before using the site.

Daunting is a mild word for how difficult this will be for most seniors.

(the demo is way too fast for most people to follow. I had problems, due to the fact that I just woke up, but also because you have to scroll on the demo, and therefore can miss what's going on at the top of the page. The person who created this would get an "D+" in any flash class here, and the only reason for not failing outright would be that the intent was good, but the execution is very poor. I got the general idea, but I am thinking that older people would have a huge problem even following the demo, much less using the real drug plan finder...)
-jennifer n.

Anonymous said...

"and, with another click of the mouse, suggestions on how to cut costs further by picking cheaper drugs"

I think this is the offending phrase. But maybe I only think that because it reminds me of the Freese v. Bozzo bet.

Anonymous said...

I think the first to fall will be for-profit insurers who are counting on scads of elderly sign-ups.

Dean Howard

Tom Bozzo said...

I'm with Anon 1:29. Putting the onus on seniors to identify lower-cost prescription drugs (assuming they're fortunate to have conditions where lower-cost drugs even exist), rather than using Medicare's monopsony power to take away some of Big Pharma's rents? Just f***ing brilliant.

The whole excerpted passage is substantially false, though. I had visited the site to investigate a claim from one of the comments in the Krugman thread, and while I didn't enter any personal information apart from my ZIP Code, I judged the information on the fifty-some plans that are available to a Madisonian senior to be mostly useless.

Anonymous said...

My colleague at Purdue said it took 12 of them (PhDs, all) working together to figure out all the details of the system.