In the early stages of the recent US presidential election, candidate Howard Dean legitimised the internet and email as mediums for political activism and fundraising. As government in general tries to build bridges with the citizens, an effective web channel is critical. With this in mind User Vision looks at how well six British political party websites measure up in terms of usability and accessibility.
This is a summary of the series of usability and accessibility reviews that Chris Rourke, Director & Founder of User Vision conducted for Mad.co.uk, the UK’s leading online resource for professionals working in marketing, media, new media, advertising and design. The full series of articles, as well as reviews and redesigns of the campaign messages and branding for the parties, is available at www.mad.co.uk/electionspecial [edit: these pages are no longer available - sorry!].
- The Green Party
- Liberal Democrat Party
- Plaid Cymru
- The Conservative Party
- The Scottish National Party
- The Labour Party
The internet is increasingly a resource used to research detailed issues such as political and social policies. Clearly as government in general tries to build bridges with the citizens, an effective web channel is critical. But an effective web site is much more than putting some key content online.
The way a site is organised, written, and presented can make or break the overall ‘user experience’. The clarity with which a party can convey its views to a large degree will determine if site visitors feel frustrated and alienated by a party’s site or whether they engage with the site, potentially actively campaigning, recommending others and voting for the party. This is the domain of usability and accessibility on the web and it is critical for the online presence of political parties.
Online accessibility for disabled people is increasingly important. In the UK, amendments to the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) set out the rights of disabled people not to encounter unjustifiable discrimination by goods, facilities and service providers on account of their disability. Beyond the legal arguments there is the moral issue of promoting social inclusion by taking advantage of the potential of web technology to widen access to information, facilities and services.
In the early stages of the recent US presidential election, candidate Howard Dean legitimised the internet and email as mediums for political activism and fundraising. He showed that a party’s site can do much more than state policies and contact details. He provided a virtual community for the party’s dispersed supporters to learn, educate, share enthusiasm, political views and campaigning tactics, even portray a ‘personality’ to the candidate through the campaign blog.
UK parties have the same opportunity to engage with their committed and potential voters through the web. Are they grasping that? We took at six political party’s websites to see how usable their site was for the voting masses and how they accommodated users with special access needs, e.g. blind users or those with motor disabilities.
We focused on 3 typical tasks that people will want to achieve when visiting a political party’s website, these are:
- To find out about the party’s policies
- View news on election progress
- Find out how to contribute to or join the party
Each website also gets a rating out of five based on these standards:
- Content: How useful the information and functionality delivered via the site is to the intended target audience. Is the content readable?
- Structure: How well the content of the site is organized to support users’ efficiently getting the information or functionality they are seeking
- Navigation: How easy and obvious it is to move from one part of the site to the next desired content / functionality in the site
- Search: How useful is the site’s search feature. Is the results page helpful?
- Overall design & presentation: How well the visual design reflects the intended image, looks professional and is aesthetically pleasing
- Accessibility: How well the site supports special needs users and users with older technology for accessing the information
The homepage of this site was friendly and approachable. From there it was easy to access current news items, but when we started searching for specific pieces of information things got a bit more complicated.
The site structure was not transparent and frequently the page headings did not reflect the content of that page. When we located the policy pages information it was The Green Party neglected to think about users reading their policies online and the policy information pages were long and difficult to scan.
Reading on websites is not like reading printed documents. Commonly quoted statistics show that users don’t read webpage in detail. 79% of users scan the page instead of reading word-for-word. Reading from computer screens is 25% slower than from paper. This needs to be kept in mind when putting content on websites. Cutting and pasting from long print publications decreases the effectiveness of webpage content. Instead, the information should be pared down to it minimum and presented in short sentence and paragraphs, broken up by bulleted lists and subheadings. We found some better example of this on other political party sites, as you will see below.
It is clear how to join and donate to the party. However, these sections are poorly formatted and lose the branding of the rest of the site, which makes both processes seem disjointed from the main site. This may make users uncomfortable when they are entering in their personal information.
The accessibility of the site was low and many groups of disabled users, including those using screen readers and text only browsers, would find some parts of the site difficult or impossible to access, including the online forms. There were some very basic accessible design errors, such as missing or inappropriate alternative text, inaccessible PDFs with no accessible alternative and recursive links. Some of these issues would not require a lot of effort to resolve, but as it stands deny some disabled users access to the content.
Overall design & presentation 4
The Liberal Democrats site works well to back up their election campaign. When we reviewed it they made use of an introductory page to set out their 10 election pledges. Splash pages are a tactic that we saw many political parties adopt over the election period to grab the user’s attention when they arrived by the site. Some of these worked well but, like the Lib Dem one, the link to skip this page was hidden a bit at the bottom. We would recommend that this is made clearer so as not to annoy impatient users (there are a lot out there).
Detailed information on the Lib Dem policies is easily obtained by using the navigation at the top of the page. This navigation is consistent throughout the site and the labels are clear. But it tries to cram in a lot of options in this top area, which forces the navigation over three lines. This is cluttered and loses each page some important ‘vertical equity’, forcing the user to scroll.
The search and advanced search let users easily locate a specific topic. The advanced search lets the user refine their search criteria and focus on information between specific dates or search for an exact phrase.
The content is presented with clear page and section headings, but the main body of content is not broken up by sub headings or highlighted words, thus suffering from the same problem as the Green Party site.
Joining or donating is linked to from the top navigation and we were pleased to see that there was good practice shown in presenting the forms. They were straightforward and easy to use. Lib Dems optimise their fundraising by suggesting donation amounts at the end of the joining and renewing membership form.
Importantly, they had clear information about security. The number of people using the internet to shop and donate is steadily increasing, but that doesn’t mean users are any less nervous about sending credit card information over the internet. We have repeatedly seen in usability tests subjects abandoning sites at the moment of transaction because they didn’t have confidence in the security of the site.
The site designers have nodded towards accessible web design and made sure that all images have alternative text to aid users browsing non-visually. However, other basic features are neglected. For example, the ability to increase or decrease the font sizes using the browser controls is only patchily implemented across the site, with some areas having fixed font size.
Overall design & presentation 4
The most disappointing site was that of the party of Wales. It had a shockingly low standard for website usability and accessibility, in stark contrast to the other parties. It was hard to believe that it was a professional site intended for a 2005 audience.
The standard of design was poor and the site was archaically designed in frames – a practice most sites have abandoned for well documented usability and accessibility reasons, including poor navigational experience.
The text on the site seems to have been cut and pasted from a print publication, with little thought given to writing for the web. There is almost no highlighting of key features.
Much of the content is presented using PDF files. All the parties were guilty of this to some extent. PDF files are not an alternative to presenting information on a website, they are an option. Broadly speaking PDF files are inaccessible to many disabled users. Also, many users do not want to download PDF files because of technology or broadband restrictions. Therefore an accessible, HTML version of the information should be also available. Also, the link should make clear it is a PDF file and the file size. The page should have a link to the Adobe site to download Acrobat Reader, for those users who do not have it.
Navigating the site was unintuitive. The left hand navigation does not seem to be in any particular order, with ‘Party History’ at the top. The site is not very deep and there was little indication in some section where you were. Needless to say, the site would prove difficult for a number of disabled users with assistive technology to access because of the frames, but also there is little or no structure markup.
As the site is for the Party of Wales, one would expect content to be presented in this language. A link has been provided at the bottom of the left hand navigation which allows users to select either the Welsh or English language version. This is a positive attribute in principle; however it falls down in practice as many of the pages in the English version are presented in Welsh first. Only if users scroll down certain pages will they discover English translations also. This adds further confusion and continues to weaken the overall user experience of the site.
For disabled users there were some good features about the site. The site was sparing on images and any that were there had appropriate alternative text. The font is a good size for most people and is also scalable, allowing those who want to increase the font through their browser settings to do so. However the site uses images of text for left hand navigation which means they are not resizable.
The frames will cause problems for some users, including screen reader users. We would recommend avoiding the use of frames altogether. However, if they are used, they should be given a descriptive title and name (e.g. ‘Navigation’) so that text only browsers, screen readers and refreshable Braille displays can understand what the content of the frame is.
Overall design & presentation 2
In contrast the Conservative party presents a slickly branded and clear website that reinforces their election message from the homepage. A flash banner reinforces their advertising campaign and under the heading ‘What we will do’ five campaign pledges are laid out.
The navigation behaves consistently throughout the site which makes the learnability of the site straightforward for most users. Key navigation routes are offered along the top of each page in a series of tabs for political areas of interest (jobs, crime, schools etc) with further action-based navigation for getting in touch, finding out more about the Party etc in the left hand navigation.
This navigation does not support the user in orientating themselves within the site and the current location can be slightly unclear. When following on of the ‘What we will do’ links the page usually leads with a news story and no clear reference to the link topic. This can lead to uncertainty that the correct page has been found.
The site has many links and promotions for joining or donating to the party and to register support. The form show good practice in letting the user select a suggested donation amount or lets them specify they own. As a nice touch users can specify which campaign/issue they would like their money allocated to. This gives them control over how their money is spent and lets them feel they have more have power over their donation.
Unfortunately for those who are protective of their privacy, there is no communication opt-out option. Users are required to register with the site before they donate and this specifies that they must receive communication from the party. This is off putting for people who just want to donate without getting unsolicited emails or mail.
There are examples of positive accessible web design on the Conservative site, including a function to allow users to resize text – a particularly useful feature considering the ageing population that supports the Tories. The site could be improved with alterative text for some images where there is currently. Also, the underlying structure of the site, e.g. headings, is not reflected in the underlying HTML markup. Including this information means that semantic information about the content is clear and allows the site to transform gracefully across different browsers and platforms.
Overall design & presentation 4
The Scottish National Party (SNP) website is a stark contrast to their Welsh counterparts. The homepage is clear and professional, with sections of information organised under clear headings. We were particularly impressed with how the content throughout the site is presented in bite size paragraphs with links to further detail for users who are interested in learning more. The content is well written and easy to scan.
The site keeps a strong consistency in design and layout throughout and the current location is indicated in the navigation and the headings. There is a lack of consistency in the clickable parts of the site, alternating between the subheading, the text and the coloured link at the bottom.
The SNP site shows good practice in having detailed information on policies in PDF files and in plain text files. Therefore, those users who do not want to have to wait to download a PDF file can easily access the information. The file size is shown, but the names of the files are the same generic text for all documents (‘Download’ and ‘Preview’). It would be much easier for the users if these were clarified, especially if the user wishes to save the files and review them later.
The online donation and joining forms are easy to find, with clear and consistent links on the left hand side and at the top. The forms are easy to use, but lack the persuasiveness demonstrated by some of the other parties.
As with the others, this site makes a gesture towards accessible web design, but still fails to meet the most basic level of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The site uses good structural HTML and the text is specified in relative font size so it can be resized by the browser controls. There are some instances of generic link text (e.g. ‘read more’) which is unhelpful for screen reader users tabbing through, but generally the link text is good. However, the site transforms ungracefully when the style sheets are turned off, due to the top banner specifying the background colour in the HTML. Also, some of the decorative images are missing their alternative text.
Overall design & presentation 4
The party of the current (at time of writing) government came in at a surprising third in this usability and accessibility review. For a party famed for its canny communication, the Labour party site makes some basic mistakes that stop it achieving the top spot in this review.
The Labour homepage is clear and attractive and uses the nice tactic of showcasing one policy or issue at a time with a large picture of the people involved. This clearly sets their issue in the real world of the people it affects. The page has lots of promotional areas. However with many of these, like ‘Tony’s campaign diary’, it is hard to tell where they live in the site. Thus when you are trying to find such features again from a different part of the site you do not know where to go. These seem to be discreet silos that are only linked from promotional areas.
The navigational confusion continues throughout the site. While the top navigation is clear and consistent, when you go into a section it is unclear where the secondary navigation is. The right hand navigation seems to just group related links. I discovered the secondary navigation in the ‘Our Policies’ section at the bottom of the page content, below the fold. Additionally, the silo theme continues when you go into a specific policy so you have to click back to the main page to get to another one. This is clumsy and means the user has no consistent overview of the section.
The content on the Labour site is well written for reading onscreen (and generally well written) and is a real strength for the site. Also, this site comes out top in the accessibility stakes. It is elegantly designed in style sheets and has good alternative text and structural markup throughout. All the pages flow logically when accessed linearly and there is invisible internal navigation links to help screen reader users skip straight to the page content.
Overall design & presentation 4
the difference between the lowest (Plaid Cymru) and the highest (SNP) scoring sites is wide in this review, showing that some of the parties have grasped better than others how to effectively communicate online. Overall the standard was good, and no doubt the websites are serving to improve communications for all parties. However I cannot point to one party as an all-round example of how to communicate well online.
We were surprised that some of the sites, especially Plaid Cymru, seemed to neglect tailoring their content for their website. Dumping print publications online makes the site very content heavily and difficult to browse. Content needs to be concise and to the point. Sentences and paragraphs should be kept short and the page broken up by lists and subheadings to help the scanning eye pick key information. The SNP and Labour did this well, thus making their sites instantly more digestible.
The SNP and the Conservative party websites had clear and consistent navigation with good labels. This helps users learn the site and speeds up finding information. Site designers should never underestimate how pivotal this is to a good user experience. The Labour party site falls down badly in this, with its numerous silos and nontransparent structure.
Overall design and presentation
The standard of design was generally good (with the exception of Plaid Cymru). However, the Conservatives took the biscuit in terms of the branding impact and strong campaign message.
We were surprised that the standard of accessibility was not higher, as the parties should be showing good practice in social inclusiveness. The Labour party showed the clearest commitment to accessibility with lots of positive features, followed by the Conservatives. Most of the parties had an accessibility statement but most did not live up to their promises. A bad sign?
Future political party site developers would benefit from cherry picking some lessons of best practice from the sites reviewed. These include the CSS layout and accessibility of the Labour site, the straightforward and transparent donation and join forms of the Liberal Democrats, the branding impact and strong campaign message of the Conservatives and the consistency in layout and clarity of content of the SNP. Even these however leave room for improvement.
Finally, just as political imperatives evolve over time, so does web technology and user expectations. I would expect that by the next time a general election is held party websites may need to include greater integration with mobile channels, new interaction methods such as Rich Internet Applications, and address the modified guidelines on accessibility.
Mad.co.uk is the UK’s primary online resource, providing news, jobs and information, to professionals working in marketing, media, new media, advertising and design.
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This article was written by Chris Rourke. Chris is the Managing Director of User Vision, a usability and accessibility consultancy that helps clients gain a competitive advantage through improved ease of use.