Why is the “COVID-19 test for travel” booking experience so broken? | Chuck Rice

Here’s an overview of what the process generally looks like, for booking your COVID-19 tests for travelling into or returning to the U.K.:

  1. Determine what tests you need
  2. Find a test provider
  3. Booking and scheduling

Below is a task model capturing what I discovered from doing the booking process myself; it’s one of my favourite methods of conveying a process with different decision-making criteria:

Determine what tests you need

First up you need to figure out what tests you need to take. Some of the information you’re going to need include:

  • where you’re travelling to and from
  • all the other countries you’ll visit 10 days prior to travelling to the U.K.
  • whether you’re vaccinated or not

With this information, and with the guidance available on the government website, you can usually figure out what you need. In my case, Poland is on the amber travel list, I’m not going anywhere else, and I’m double vaccinated with Pfizer. This means I should need a pre-departure test, and a “Day 2” test.

Common pages you may reference are the Travel abroad from England during coronavirus, the Red, amber, green lists: … rules for travel to England from abroad, and Coronavirus testing before you travel to England. At this point, if you’re double vaccinated, you may want to also read up guidance on the NHS Covid pass.

Find a test provider

This is perhaps the most stressful part, and where the experience begins to break down. There doesn’t seem to be any endorsements or recommendations, which makes sense since it can bias people’s opinions and decisions. If they did, some may even see it as the testing providers being in cahoots with the people who set and approve the regulations.

You can use the Find a coronavirus travel test provider page from the government website.

Once you’ve located the Find a coronavirus travel test provider page, it does a great job from a Content Design point of view to give you full disclosure. For example, no single provider is endorsed, prices may differ from this list and their website, and the price may reflect the level of service you get.

As you may have seen from the Task Model, here are the decision factors you may take when deciding on a test provider:

  • price — this seemed to be the main deciding factor, but you’ll quickly find the low cost tests of £20 are either out of stock or simply not applicable to you
  • availability — what you learn quickly is that many providers are simply out of stock for the test you need
  • scheduling — if you prefer a walk-through or drive-through test, you’ll need to see if they have slots available for day 0, 1, or 2 when you return
  • turnaround time — you might be planning ahead like me, or if you’re a last-minute person there are providers who have an “express” option to get your test results back sooner
  • customer service—how helpful will the provider be if the test gets lost or if there’s a problem
  • credibility — this affected my decision, even though in theory all of these providers are approved to provide arrival tests

What I struggled with the most, is how I had to go pretty far down the sales funnel on the providers’ website before I figured out if a test was out of stock. Some showed out of stock after I selected it from the list of products. What’s worse, some even suggested that they were out of stock for that day and I should come back tomorrow. All of this could have been surfaced to me earlier in the purchasing process.

Here are a few examples that made my life difficult:

Booking and scheduling

Once you’ve found a provider or shortlisted a few, you need to figure out the scheduling. You have a few options in terms of scheduling your test:

  • Walk-through testing site
  • Drive-through testing site
  • Clinic or lab based test
  • Send by post

Even if you can filter the list of providers based on their available booking and scheduling options, I found that you still had to investigate a few options as a whole. It’s only half-way during the booking process, after you’ve found a provider who has the required test in stock, can you see their availability. This far down the decision funnel, it can be frustrating just to see that this provider is unable to give you a test slot that suits your schedule. Factor in any buffer time such as delayed flights, and you may as rule out booking a test on the day you arrive back.

At one point, I thought to use the provider found at the airport, but they didn’t have walkthrough availability on the days I needed a test done. Another provider didn’t have slots for another two months!

In the end, I picked Dante. This is not an endorsement of them, but more an explanation of the positive signals I saw with a technical and UX perspective:

  • Shopify checkout — in the checkout process you can tell it’s powered by Shopify based on the layout and URL. My payment details will probably be more secure with a widely used industry solution, compared to the wide range of home-baked solutions that aren’t as thoroughly tested
  • clear copy and content— the package was labelled as the day 2 package, for green list countries or amber list countries and double vaccinations. The use of “chips” in the green and amber round-end rectangles chunk up the information clearly.
  • pay and receive anytime — they send out the kits when they can as soon as you place the order, and you can register the kit when you’re ready.
  • social proof — over 3 million covid tests done worldwide. By sheer volume, I have more confidence that these tests are routine performed with little chance for delays.

What I really noticed is that the cumbersome process of entering all my travel details, just to attempt to buy a test with some providers, was deferred until after the purchase. Clever! I was hesitant at first until I realised that I was supposed to give these details later after registering the kit. Dante successfully rearranged the ordering of the booking experience so that you only had to do the minimum possible. It reduces the amount of work and effort I have to put in now.

  • Before: locate product → certificate details → shipping details → pay
  • After: locate product → shipping details → pay → certificate details

One speculative benefit of this approach for the business, is they end up paying less in storage costs. By letting the customer hold on to their test sooner, they can keep the bulk of their business resources on conducting the tests and collect monies before carrying out the work. Anyone that’s had a look at “fulfilled by Amazon” will know what I mean, since you have to pay a charge for each day your product doesn’t sell.

What I think they could do better at, is explaining the full process. I understood it to work as I described above, however others may not be able to deduce that themselves. Perhaps people landing on their website from a Google search may find this information up front, but going through the entry point of the government website did need me to do a bit of detective work first.

I have a theory as to why the experience is so poor. It all comes down to law and regulations.

It’s notorious that IT moves faster than government, the law, and legislations are able to keep up. I think back to how different travelling in 2020 must have been; you may have struggled to find a flight and you could become stranded, but there weren’t the same travel regulations and guidance on testing as there is now. Providers had a short amount of time to implement the guidance once it was available, some making poorer technical and business decisions than others.

Profit maximisation is the other side-effect of this. As an example in the beginning of the pandemic, a man bought 17,700 bottles of hand sanitiser with the intention of upselling it for an extortionate profit. He was eventually investigated for price gouging and couldn’t sell any of it on Amazon or eBay. Some providers may be cutting corners here by providing poorly produced websites, and choosing not to pay for a tried and tested solution like Shopify for payment processing, at the expense of the customer’s data security.

I will say though it was nice to see that some providers did choose to provide low cost COVID tests, stating it was “for those less financially able, but still need to travel for family reasons”.

It’s not all doom and gloom, but my own experience trying to book some COVID tests helps confirm to me that there’s still a lot of work to do in the tech industry. We’ve come a long way and many businesses are taking the user experience further by investing in their Design Systems and meeting Accessibility standards. It was a bit of the “blast from the past” seeing some more naive tech, business, and design decisions being made.

People expect a higher level of user experience than ever before, with a big thanks to the pandemic pushing online sales to over 25% of all retail in the UK. We also can’t be too careful on security when this past August over 60 million records of data was breached and leaked. Businesses need to take responsibility to conduct business ethically, provide a better experience to customers, and still make a profit where it makes sense.

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