As a web developer, I often can't avoid viewing every website I visit through that critical and technical lens. As has been the tradition in the geek community for several national election cycles, I thought I would take on a technical review of the websites belonging to the two current candidates for Richmond's Mayoral election, Sally Hutton and Rick Thalls. My analysis will look at graphic design, content structure, and overall usability. Note that this analysis is NOT meant to imply endorsement of either candidates` political views or campaigns as a whole.

RickThalls.com

I'll start with the Rick Thalls campaign website, http://www.rickthalls.com/. The first thing I notice about Mr. Thalls` site is that the front page is over 900 Kilobytes in size. For someone on a dial-up connection, that's a large download, perhaps prohibitively so for some users. The main reason for this is that Mr. Thalls displays images that are sized much larger than they are displayed, forcing you to download much more information than is actually used. For example, the "Please Vote Today" image currently on the front page is displayed at 532 pixles wide by 230 pixels high, but the actual image file is much larger, 1007 pixels wide by 436 pixels wide - a big no-no in web development.

The current front page also plays an audio clip every time you load it, with Rick welcoming you to the site. While it's definitely an engaging use of "new media," it can become annoying after one's third and fourth visit to the site. Because it plays without prompting, it also holds the possibility of startling or embarrassing users who are viewing the site in a public or work setting and aren't expecting the sound.

This is a comment that applies to both sites: I don't understand the compulsion to put local weather information on a political campaign site. There are several hundred other places that I can get the weather in my daily routine, many of them on local websites - why do I need to have the weather listed so prominently here? It's a waste of "screen real estate" and comes across as unnecessary filler. Thalls' site continues that trend with a number of Flash-based games at the bottom of his front page. HUH?? I could almost see the utility if he had a "Kids Area" or something like that where the games were related to a policy statement, but in its current incarnation, the presence of a Pac-Man feature doesn't say "serious political candidate."

Once you start browsing around the site's inner pages, you begin to see some of the things the site does well: it has a consistent "look and feel" (sorry, Mr. Hill). The colors are bold and inviting, and make the site visually pleasing. Games and weather report aside, the site doesn't make excessive use of bells and whistles, annoying animations, or other tackiness. The site provides some basic useful information - Rick's background, when and where to vote for him, and how you can help his campaign.

Perhaps my biggest disappointment with rickthalls.com is the total lack of detail about the candidate's positions on issues and specific vision for what a Thalls administration would look like. As I believe he's done in many of his other public writings and appearances, he mostly writes in vagaries and sweeping generalizations that make the site seem more about propaganda and less about educating voters. "The appropriate partnerships within the city will play a huge role in solving these problems"...what does that MEAN? "We must portray a professional image"....what does that LOOK like? "We must address new revenue options!"...what ARE they?

Lastly, the site does not appear to offer a way to contact the candidate directly with questions or comments about the campaign. This is a failure of the promise of using the Internet for better two-way contact between candidates and constituents.

Other things I noticed in my review:

  • The site is hosted on the Linux operating system using the Apache web server software platform. The site is hosted via the GoDaddy.com, Inc. service, which isn't local, but is widely known and cost effective.
  • The page titles of the site that display in the web browser title bar are not page-specific. In other words, they all say about the same thing ("Elect Rick Thalls Mayor") instead of something more precise like "Rick Thalls - As Your Mayor" and "Rick Thalls - Vote Today," or something similar.
  • The site does not have a privacy policy stating how they will use information submitted through the "Show Rick Your Support" form.
  • The site does not validate to industry-recognized W3C standards, which means it may not be compatible with alternate web browsing platforms like devices for the visually impaired, people using text-only browsers, etc.
  • The site does not offer any Spanish-language translation options for the city's significant Spanish-speaking population

HuttonForMayor.com

The website for incumbent Sally Hutton is at HuttonForMayor.com, but really, this is the Mayor's secondary campaign website. The primary one is the one belonging to the City of Richmond, and while I won't go into a full critique of it right now, let's just say that it probably doesn't reflect very comprehensively on the Mayor's administration to date - a missed opportunity for sure. But, moving on:

The front page weighs in at 177 Kilobytes, a fairly fast download for even slower connections, which is good. The site achieves a "graphical" look while still using style sheets and text to display the site's critical content (e.g. "Sally Hutton for Mayor" at the top) instead of bulky graphics. This is good for search engine optimization and usability by non-graphical web browser programs.

Unfortunately, the design isn't very compelling. A strange flag-like icon and some blocky header graphics don't really draw the user in or convey a polished image. Certainly, once we cross into the area of design aesthetics there is much that is subjective, but I think even newer web users can recognize that the site design leaves much to be desired in terms of professionalism and atmosphere.

Like the Thalls site, the Hutton site provides some useful basic information about the candidate: history and background (including home address and phone number, which is good to see), past accomplishments and service to the community, etc. But the site also lacks any concrete information about the Mayor's policy positions on key issues, or specific vision for what a second term in office might look like. If a voter came to this site hoping to educate themselves in making a decision, they would only have past-oriented information to act upon, a missed opportunity for sure.

The Mayor has a nice Flash-based photo gallery viewer on the site that shows her participation in various community events. Unlike the Thalls slideshow viewer, it doesn't have any captions to describe what's happening in the images.

The Mayor's site does offer a site-wide search feature which is useful to have, although the site isn't quite so big that one can't find what one needs by clicking through it.

Other things I noticed:

  • The site is hosted on the Linux operating system using the Apache web server software platform. The site is hosted via the Lunarpages.com hosting service, which isn't local, but is widely known and cost effective.
  • The site does not have a privacy policy stating how they will use information submitted through the "Volunteer" or "Contribute" forms.
  • The Mayor makes her direct campaign e-mail address available front-and-center on the site's splash page, which increases the sense of her availability.
  • The site's footer says it was last updated on September 29th, 2007. For a political campaign that wants to appear on top of the day's current issues, it's probably not a good idea to imply a month of no changes in the content.
  • The site does not validate to industry-recognized W3C standards, which means it may not be compatible with alternate web browsing platforms like devices for the visually impaired, people using text-only browsers, etc.
  • The site does not offer any Spanish-language translation options for the city's significant Spanish-speaking population

Conclusions

If the election were held today and the sole criteria for voting was the quality and utility of the candidate websites...it would probably be too close to call. Both sites have their positive features, but both lack any substantial future-oriented information that voters can use to education themselves about what a Hutton or Thalls administration will specifically look like.

For me, the whole point of having a campaign website is to provide in-depth information that can't be easily shared during a speech, debate, or passing conversation. If someone's already at the site, they already know that you're running for Mayor, and in this race in this town, they probably already know a lot of tidbits about you.

So, each candidate should have had detailed policy documents outlining their budget plans, economic development vision, environmental policy, governing model, staff structure, and more - and then they should have been referring to that information throughout the campaign. "For more information about exactly what I'll do about issue X, you can go to my website..." They've elaborated somewhat in the pseudo-blog hosted by the local paper, but as election day draws near, that too seems to be more of a platform for quick sound bites and less for substantial presentation of information or dialogue.

If I were to be overly cynical about all of this, I could infer that neither the candidates nor the voting population think enough about the substance of ideas to bother with effectively using one of the best mediums available for exchanging that kind of information, the web. But, I suspect that what's really at work is low standards and poor precedents for what kind of political web presence is necessary or desirable in a local election.

With that context in mind, both campaign websites are probably doing exactly what they set out to do, and as well as they set out to do it.