Scene 41: Jack deals with insurance

In which twenty-something Jack faces the need to set up his health insurance for the first time.

Understanding personal finance and social insurance must at minimum be made less painful. Earlier understanding of it can lead to greater accountability.

This was the first year that Jack could no longer stay on his parent's health care plan. He had a sense of dread about getting his own insurance—fear of the unknown, mainly—and had been procrastinating the whole ordeal, until his calendar's hectoring and pleading finally led him to allocate a few minutes to it.

Jack insurance

He started the program, composed his thoughts, and then asked, "What if I do nothing?"

The program laid out the main decision points for Jack and their specific financial consequences. It clearly assumed that he had very limited patience, and so its aim was merely to prevent a "bad" decision. Jack recognized and appreciated this, but—well, now that he was thinking about the whole thing, why not get a little deeper understanding? Intellectual value, he told himself.

He eyed a link promising to explain the concept of health insurance to him, and he selected it. An animation played.

"You probably shouldn't spend money on something that probably won't get you anything. Of course not—you just pay for the things you decide to get.

But you only have one life to ruin. What if an accident or disease happens? Maybe it's not likely. But, what would your life be like?

One response might be, "I don't care." But most people are smarter than that, and they buy insurance that they hope will never get them anything…"

Jack knew all this, and jumped ahead. The program quickly led him through three different health scenarios applicable to him, graphically showing the dollar consequences, and Jack interrupted frequently to ask about probabilities and about medical terms. The program pushed a couple true stories about young men like him.

One story was particularly dire. He reflected, and then asked, "What if I go over the coverage limit and the costs keep coming, and I run out of money?"

"If a health issue exhausts your insurance coverage and your financial resources, and you have no other options, you could apply to have your case evaluated for government welfare."

This did not sound promising. He selected from a number of follow-up options, and learned to his surprise that (1) prior behavioral prudence was a significant factor in welfare application decisions, and (2) in certain cases, the government would just let you die. Shit!

His interest was flagging, so he went back to dull, nuts-and-bolts decisions about deductibles and premiums, and, suddenly exasperated, asked for a proposal. It produced a nicely-organized, interactive document. He scanned it and then asked, "Is this similar to my friends' coverage?"

"Privacy laws don't allow you to obtain coverage information about specific people, but I can show you averages for a sampling of people with attributes that you select."

"No." More than Jack was interested in trying to digest. He still wondered, though, how to know whether he was doing this right. He concluded that he would come back to this and finish it later in the week, reflecting that, at least now most of the mystery and horror was gone.

Wouldn't it be nice to never have to deal with necessities like personal finances and insurance? Alas, even in the far future, most of us will need to manage them. But it should be a lot less painful.

It's a situation where the designers have to work extra hard to imagine themselves as an unhappy, impatient user. Designers will use any information available to predict a specific user's state of mind, and to anticipate what interactive options will be most gratefully welcomed. All conceivable moments of confusion or misunderstanding must be visualized, and then prevented or handled.

In short, an extraordinary, extraordinary amount of empathy with future users will be required.

One could say, that's all instructional design is: deep learner empathy. If the designers have that, the end product will be good; if they don't, it won't.

Empathy entails knowing your audience, their background knowledge, and the questions they're likely to have about your topics. But the designer also needs to know a lot about how people think and feel. About cognitive limitations (e.g. short-term memory, and visual attention), and about how people "construct" new knowledge in their minds. And about how to keep them sufficiently engaged.

Jack has to learn a little about buying insurance. He's dimly aware that the insurance system is terribly complicated, and he's not confident about navigating it. How can we help Jack? Well, an easy, interactive system that understands context, that explains what you want, the way you want it—that would sure help.

The same goes for other modern burdens: reviewing your taxes; education planning; getting a loan; helping a sick kid; navigating a legal problem. Online systems that hold your hand, that gauge your needs, that can explain what any item means, that get you the best deal. That's what we want. Automated "coaching" is an essential part of it.


cast of characters