Every major election, I make a point to take a nonpartisan look (yes, I can do that) at the major candidates' websites and evaluate them based on usability, design, clarity and messaging, mobile and overall trustworthiness.
After all, we've designed hundreds of websites at OnMilwaukee.com including our own, since 1998, and I built my first site back in 1996. While I'm neither a designer – though I do my share of designing – nor am I a programmer, I do manage both departments every day, and I oversee the look and feel of both our internal and external development projects.
So, I know what makes a good website and what makes a bad one. And, during each election cycle, I find myself disappointed with what's out there. To be sure, the presidential candidates websites are they best they've ever been, although they are far from perfect. And the sites for the Senate and Congressional candidates from Wisconsin frankly could hardly be worse.
Here's a topical look at websites of the major candidates in the Nov. 6 election:
Barackobama.com – The President's Web site begins with not one, not two, but three splash screens, which is a major Web site party foul. Even one splash screen is considered too many in 2012. Clicking on the logo moves the user past each of these requests for Facebook support, money and a sign up for a bumper sticker, but there's no "skip button." These splash screens appear to be cookie-based, so you don't see them when you visit again, but as I tell our clients, you only get one chance to make a first impression.
When you finally hit the fourth page, you're looking at Obama's real Web site, which is crisp and clean with a bloggy feel. The HTML is modern and immaculate and utilizes responsive design, but the nav bar comes and goes depending on what page you're visiting. The mobile site is similarly slick.
The geotargeting is confused. On both my desktop and iPhone, the Web site kept thinking I was in New Jersey. The donation tools are clean and efficient, if not omnipresent. I find them a little heavy handed, although the website has an upbeat, positive feel and isn't an attack vehicle for the President's opponent.
Overall, it's a fast, clean and beautiful site, only marred by some obvious usability issues.
MittRomey.com – Romney's Web site opens with a donation screen that's noticeably more cluttered than Obama's, but at least the navigation is at the top of this semi-splash screen is present right away.
Oddly, upon clicking on the logo (which is the de facto way to get "home"), the user hits another splash screen inviting New Jersey residents (again with the Jersey!) to sign up for an e-mail newsletter. The only way to skip it is to click "learn more."
Romney's design isn't as clean as Obama's. I count at least five different fonts, with gray text over a patterned gray background that affects readability.
The site does not use responsive design, so it doesn't scale well to lower resolution monitors. The Wisconsin blog page uses an awkwardly kerned out font for its headlines, while its "jobs plan" page looks sharper than the other. His mobile site is fine, although the photos are noticeably blurry on an iPhone.
As for messaging, unlike Obama's site that advocates early voting, Romney make no mention of that. His pledge page offers amounts from $15 to $5,000, though it also says that the maximum amount an individual can contribute is $2,500. That's confusing.
Overall, Romney's site is a little better than fair, but it's stodgy and inconsistent and looks a little dated. But it's easier to navigate than Obama's and not at all negative on the homepage – Obama's name comes up just once, at the bottom in a related site called "Obama Isn't Working," which is owned by the RNC.
Tammybaldwin.com: Baldwin's site opens up with a call to action to sign up for something – what isn't entirely clear, and the typical Facebook friends module you see everywhere. The homepage is grossly unbalanced, with tons of wasted white space in the left column and a huge empty nav section at the bottom.
The blog section is clean, while the contribute page looks completely different than the rest of the site. It's completely outsourced and feels borderline shady. Occasionally, you'll find yourself on a splash page that's missing navigation, too. The voting information page also looks completely different from the rest of the site, and the logo at the top of that page is cut off at the bottom.
The entire site is built using free WordPress software, which is quite amateur for a politician at this level. It also appears to be designed by novice designers who donated their time for free. I would be ashamed to put my name on a site like this.
Overall, the information is there, but the design is sloppy and the usability suffers. What would pass for a nice site in 2004 looks very amateur in 2012.
Tommyforwisconsin.com: Thompson's site opens with lots of capital letters, a repeated background and a large body font asking for money. Something called "piryx" powers the share tool, which shows the site (presumably) has been liked seven times and tweeted once. That seems broken.
When you pass this splash screen, you see a red, blue and gray page with a carousel at the top. The interior pages seem to alternate between huge and tiny text.
The donation tool leaves the site and jumps back to Piryx, which is explained as a "social giving platform." Pretty amateur. The news page looks like it was built in Dreamweaver, devoid of sharing tools or keywords. There is no search tool on the site whatsoever. Actually, the site is also built with WordPress. It does feature responsive design.
Overall, Thompson's site is bad. Real bad.
Ryanforcongress.com: Paul Ryan is still running for Congress if this White House thing doesn't work out, but it's a little harder to find his site, which looks very familiar to his last campaign's site. Thankfully, it doesn't begin with an outdated splash page, rather a huge logo and photo of Ryan.
The navigation does an interesting scrolling trick when you click on a specific issue that is effective but weird. The site is missing both meta keywords and a description, which may contribute to it being difficult to find in search engines when one searches for "Paul Ryan."
Ryan's donation tool also leaves his URL yourpatriot.com, and there is no way to return to his site, other than to close the window, as it opens a new window.
It's obvious that Ryan hasn't invested a whole lot of time in updating his Web site, as his re-election is a lock – and his priorities are focused squarely on the White House this fall.
Robzerban.com: Ryan's opponent's Web site is not as bad as I expected – but it's still pretty bad. Forgoing a splash screen, it jumps right into the action with a bland and unbalanced homepage that isn't especially offensive.
The donation page is run through actblue.com and looks extremely amateur. There's even a section asking for users to "leave a tip" to this third-party donation tool. You cannot return to the main site unless you hit the "back" button.
Other pages also inexplicably leave the site. The "Tell Paul Ryan to Debate Rob Zerban" page exists on something called salsalabs.com and sports a pen-and-ink footer drawing of Kenosha, I think. Click on that link takes the user to, wait for it, another splash screen, that looks absolutely nothing like the other pages. The usability on this site is a complete mess.
Almost every headline on the site attacks Ryan. There's almost nothing promoting what this candidate brings to the table.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.