Elizabeth Buie, Kathy Gill
Republicans and Democrats routinely hold marketing-style focus groups, but I'll bet that neither of their website design firms consulted either voters or usability professionals before launching the August 2000 versions of the U.S. presidential candidate websites. In a usability review of these sites, I found common flaws as well as notable differences.
The Al Gore site (www.algore.com) and the George W. Bush site (www.georgewbush.com) share an important defect: Visited and nonvisited links are the same color, so the sites fail to give visitors feedback on what they have and have not already seen. Maybe the designers think voters won't be visiting often enough to need this information?
Other common problems included browser incompatibilities, lack of accessibility to people with disabilities, and a nonfunctioning Back button. Both sites suffer from vanity bloat, ambiguous links, and a paucity of locally oriented information.
It is difficult to assess the effectiveness of a website without knowing the intended audience, so I invented one. Visitors to a candidate's website, I think, are most likely to fall into one of the following four categories:
- Party faithful
- Other party member
- Unaligned or undecided voter
- Reporter or analyst
To remove as much subjectivity as possible, I visited both sites from the perspective of an unaligned voter, someone trying to decide which candidate to support. In so doing, I looked for the following information:
- Agriculture and farming issues statement
- How to volunteer in Washington state and Georgia
- Party platform
- Website privacy statement
I also paid brief visits to the two official party sites, www.rnc.org (Republican) and www.democrats.org (Democrat). I used both a PC and a Mac and browsed with Netscape Navigator, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Opera, and Lynx, and I used both a 56K modem and a dedicated high-speed line.
The results were more similar than different, although some of the differences are intriguing. Take the choice of Web server, for example. The Gore site uses Apache and PHP1; the Bush site uses Microsoft Information Server and ASP.2 A conscious reflection of core philosophical differences? The choices certainly reflect party stereotypes.
People learn "how the Web works" based on the Web as a whole. Thus, it is in the best interest of a site developer to follow de facto standards, to make it easy for visitors to find what they came for. Although a candidate's goal is not a purchase decision in the classic sense, a visitor's decision to endorse a candidate, to volunteer, to contribute money, or to sign up for a candidate newsletter are all "buy" decisions. For the sites in question, navigation frequently suffers from a precedence of design (artistic license coupled with geekiness) over usability.
Website design should facilitate understanding of where I am in hyperspace; the most important aspect of this sense of place is consistent feedback from site hyperlinks. On all four sites, hyperlink rendering is consistent only in that the links provide no feedback to the site visitor. Some sites use more than one color; some sites have hyperlinks the same color as body copy; one site underlines some links but not others.
This is not a call for exclusive use of "default browser link colors." However, hyperlinks have different colors (and underlines) for a reason: to provide meta-information as a voter scans the page. When links are the same color as text but are differentiated only by an underline, how is the visitor to know what is a link (see Figure 1). In a literary sense, "foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds," but in an interface, conscious consistency greases the wheels of ease of use.
Moving Around: Second-Level Navigation
Navigation schemes should answer the question "Where the heck am I?" In an ideal world, navigation is consistent across all major browsers and computing platforms.
The Gore site suffers from inconsistent main header links. Select "news" and reach a page entitled "Press Releases." Titles or headlines should be consistent with the links used to reach them.
The Bush site has two serious navigation flaws. First, after you move beyond the home page, there are no "where am I?" signposts to let you know into which of the seven main sections you've landed. Second, the Bush site uses a complex navigation scheme that is not compatible across browsers or platforms. Navigating a website should not make the visitor feel as though she's landed in the midst of an episode of Mystery!
The site is rendered incomplete with Opera 4.2 for Windows (the right-hand navigation bar disappears). It renders poorly and inconsistently for Macintosh visitors, regardless of browser. With Navigator 4.7, layers align differently than they do in Windows, making the navigation layer unusable (see Figure 2). The layering system does not work with Internet Explorer 5.0, thus treating the visitor to a second-level navigation screen that contains zero contentthat is, there is nothing on the page that deals with issues, just more links, most of them unrelated to the subject (see Figure 3).
In addition, the Bush site has an ASP engine, making the Back button an unreliable creature. ASP also generates machine-readable URLs that are a nightmare to remember or to forward in an e-mail message. The URLs on the Gore site are human readable and are thus more easily remembered than those on the Bush site.
Ambiguous Link Titles
A cardinal rule of Web design is that navigation signposts should reflect users' tasks and goals. The Bush site has both a "get involved" link and a "volunteer" link. How might they differ? Will they tell me how I can get involved? Turns out there is no difference; both lead to the same pagea sign-up form! Moreover, there is no "here's what you can do" link. In fact, the generic "volunteer opportunities" page is accessed from a link called "action items"how's that for a clear link title?
Contrast this with the Gore site. "Get involved/become a volunteer" leads to a page that asks for my time and then lists a variety of ways I might volunteer. This is much more user-centric.
The Bush site also has a prominent link called "download." This is a word that I associate with software, and I cannot guess how the word relates to a political site. This section contains screen savers, logos, photos, audio files. Yes, you do "download" these materials, but I believe the link title should more accurately reflect the content.
Good website architecture anticipates the information that a site visitor might want to find and then structures the site to make it as easy as possible to succeeed. One of the challenges of the Web is that the audience for a site is often very diverse. For example, the goals of the first-time visitor and those of the repeat reporter are possibly different. Reporters probably want quick access to "what's new" and easily navigated archives. The first-time visitor may have a specific question or may want to know what's going on in her state. How well do the sites supply voter information?
Both sites make it fairly easy to reach the agriculture and farming issues statement, with the nod toward ease of access going to the Gore site. Issues are listed in alphabetical order on the Gore site and are directly accessible from the home page. No cost per click.
The Bush site has greater cost per click, especially for the Macintosh Internet Explorer visitor or the impatient Windows voter. When listed, the issues appear in random order. Information theory suggests that lists should be alphabetical if (and only if) the user's task does not imply a logical order.
Volunteer in Georgia and Washington
Each candidate attempts to customize the information that appears on the state sites, but both fall short. Bush has a "find your county leader" option, but I checked a dozen counties in both Georgia and Washington and not one had a leader. In contrast, the GoreNet state page has an e-mail contact for almost all 50 states. The nod goes slightly to Gore on providing useful information for local volunteer efforts.
Neither candidate links to either his party's platform or its national website. Interesting, that.
Both candidates' sites have privacy statement links prominently displayed in the footer. The Gore statement is visually and grammatically more user friendly; the Bush "opt out" and contact e-mail addresses are not jump-linked or hot-linked. However, the Bush site does not explain how cookies can enhance user experience when the potential supporter has not yet created a personal profile. There is no mention of cookie data aggregation.
Using guidelines developed by the World-WideWeb Consortium, Bobby (www.cast.org/bobby/) is a tool for testing whether Web pages are accessible to people with disabilities (See Table 1). Neither the Bush nor the Gore site achieves Priority 1 Approval. The Gore home page is missing one ALT tag; the Bush home page is missing ALT tags for several images as well as for its Java applet. However, the Bush home page has a link to a plain text version of the site (although it does not work in Opera).
Web content development often involves tension between what the site owner thinks visitors should be told and what those coming to the site want to learn. Politicians aren't known for their reticent natures, and it's easy for communication to lose focus, tending to the politician (vanity) rather than the voter (user-centric). For vanity bloat, the Bush site takes the cake.
The Bush site has a daily trivia context that is of interest to ...whom? Does a potential voter really want to know the name of the street Bush lived on when he resided in Midland, TX? Yes, trivia contests are a time-honored method for harvesting names and addresses on commercial websites, but I'm not convinced they workor are needed!on a political site. Then there's the Bush "name the plane" contest. What is it and why is it taking up valuable real estate "above-the-fold"3 on the home page?
Gore has a "Bush ducks debate" clock ticking away in the lower left corner of the site. One could argue that there is a modicum of political rhetoric here, and at least it is not competing for attention above the fold. Still, it's vanity bloat to me.
In summary, neither site fully uses Web technology to create a unique experience for voters. The Bush site is heavy on technology and light on ease of use; the Gore site is slightly friendlier. Both home pages lack focus, and the primary audience is not clear. Neither site is awful, but both could be vastly improved, especially in ease of use.
It's not yet the "year of the Web" for national elections. As does going to the voting-booth, visiting a website for politics in America reveals as many similarities as differences.
Kathy E. Gill is a usability advocate for BEST Consulting in Kirkland, WA. She holds degrees in journalism and agricultural economics. In six presidential elections, she has divided her votes equally between the two major parties, allowing her to wear a mantle of nonpartisanship in this review. In her spare time, she can be found riding her new Ducati Monster 900. Kathy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Figure 1. Mixing underlines: Both of these screen shots are from the Bush site. In one, the underlines are links (which remain black even after being visited). In the other, the underline is used to add emphasis but is not a link.
Figure 2. Be careful with dynamic layers for navigation. This example from the Bush site shows the danger of having a layer overlap a form element. On the Mac the layer overlaps the parent navigation elements; it does not do this on a PC. Also, the font size is so small it is unreadable on a Mac at high resolution.
Figure 3. A page of links. The secondary navigation pages on the Bush site contain only links and no contenta high cost per click for the impatient Windows user or the Macintosh Internet Explorer voter. There are also no signposts to identify the section title.
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