Republican Presidential Sites (Largely) Fail Usability Test

We may have been building campaign websites for 15+ years now, but even presidential candidates still make major and painfully avoidable mistakes. For some striking examples, check out a just-released study from Houston-based Normal Modes, which ran the current Republican hopefuls’ sites through industry-standard usability tests. These involved looking over actual humans’ shoulders and asking questions as they went through the pages and executed specified tasks. Some findings:

  • Overall, Bachmann’s and Cain’s sites performed the best, though individual features on other sites (such as Huntsman’s interactive timeline and Perry’s mix of videos) did strike users’ fancies.
  • People HATE email-gathering splash screens, which are now standard-issue on most campaign sites. In fact, some users (older ones in particular) found them so confusing that they tried to leave the sites entirely.
  • Strikingly, once users got past the splash screens, the sites frequently did a terrible job of collecting email addresses on internal pages (I’m lookin’ at you, Mitt). C’mon kids — nonprofits have known to put a clear email signup form or button on every page for years.

  • One phrase that turned out to be particularly confusing: “join the campaign,” wording that’s also become standard on campaign websites. People found it off-putting since the text didn’t actually tell them what clicking on a “join the campaign” button would imply. Suggestion: make the wording specific, as in “get emails from Mitt” or “volunteer in your community” or “donate” (or how ’bout, “give me the CA$H and no one gets hurt”).
  • Another common complaint: unclear (“nebulous”) and/or poorly presented information about issue positions, though this may be as much a strategic move as much as an oversight. Just try to pin a politician down….
  • Campaigns collect donors’ occupation and employer because federal law requires it, but users often thought they did it to judge a giver’s future cash value. Oopsie! Lots of campaigns may need to change the way they present those questions.
  • Testers often noticed Obama2008-style imagery and features and pointed them out. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but there’s a difference between covering a song and committing plagiarism. Turns out, people can spot it.
  • Several sites (including Romney’s) had major navigability issues, leading users to think that information they were looking for simply wasn’t there. In Romney’s case, the nav issues combined with other problems to create a situation bad enough for the analysts to conclude that “the Romney website’s experience is death by a thousand cuts.” Ouch.

Go here for the full Normal Modes report and recommendations [PDF] — if you can stomach it. We can do better, folks! The communications world may be social media-obsessed these days, but people still go to campaign websites to get information about whom they might actually, you know, vote for. And if they can’t find what they’re looking for, they’re likely to go elsewhere — or stay home on election day. The sad thing is that most of these design and information-architecture lessons have been known for years, and they’re even laid-out clearly in certain well-known guides to digital politics. Honestly, when a campaign has months to prepare and is spending millions of dollars, it has absolulely no excuse for a sloppy or poorly planned website.


Written by
Colin Delany
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