General Election 2010: Party Campaign Websites Analysis (Part 2: Manifesto Pages)

By Matt Cornock

This is the second of an impartial three part analysis of the campaign websites for the UK General Election 2010. The party sites looked at will be Labour, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives. See Part 1 for full introduction. In this analysis, we’ll look at how the manifesto pages are presented. Comparing and contrasting each of the websites, we’ll identify strengths and weaknesses in design and usability. The intended user is someone who wants to view the manifesto details for the party to allow them to compare in order to vote.

Web site addresses

This analysis was conducted between 8.30pm – 10.30pm on 26th April 2010. Viewed using FireFox 3.6, on a 1280×1024 screen.

Getting to the manifesto page

Labour

From the homepage labour.org.uk, the large media box at the top contains a YouTube video presentation of the manifesto, done using plain English animated videos with click points to different videos. To the side of the video is a ‘Click here to read more’ link which takes users to the manifesto main page.

Alternatives are the ‘Our Policies’ drop down main navigation menu, or the colour marker-style buttons at the very bottom of the homepage which relate to policy ‘themes’.

Liberal Democrats

Starting from their usual web address: libdems.org.uk, the site has a splash screen. Clicking on this instance takes us to a donate page, or alternatively to the LibDems.org.uk homepage using the button bottom right.
If clicking on the main part of the page, the next page is a form asking for a donation. The manifesto is linked top right in the main navigation, highlighted in Yellow.

If clicking on the button bottom right, the user is taken to the site homepage. The manifesto is linked top right on the navigation and also at the top of the left column, again in yellow. The manifesto is also linked as the first item on the large scrolling banner (though it moved too quick for me to click it first time round).

Finally the user reaches the manifesto homepage.

Conservatives

Starting at conservatives.com. The homepage is filled with large text which does not indicate anything about a manifesto. One of the five news item type buttons on the right of the page says ‘Quality of Life manifesto launched’ however this does not go to the overall manifesto but a link to a press release. The same for ‘Big ideas to give Britain real change’.
However, in the top navigation (small text) there is a link to the manifesto.

The alternative, is to scroll to the bottom of the homepage and either select from the ‘See our policies’ drop menu, or one of the many policy area links in the large footer.

Delivery of the manifesto

Labour

The manifesto ‘splash’ page has a duplicate of the video on the homepage, but with more ‘filler’ imagery around it. At the bottom of the page are Twitter/Facebook share buttons, a PDF to the full 78 page manifesto (which comes in at a very healthy 1.37MB so you could fit it on a floppy disk), and an explore online tab. The explore online tab isn’t clickable, but if the user has the initiative to glance to the right they’ll see they’re only viewing half the page and without the visual cues to scroll down they would be wondering what else to look at. The bottom of the manifesto page is then split into five main sections, and 11 policy subsections.

At the very bottom of this page is a link to ‘variety of formats’. This goes to a plain text page for captioned videos, audio versions, large print and easy read versions. In addition Braille manifestos may also be ordered. The audio version is also voiced by Richard Wilson.

Going into one of the policy areas (selected ‘Supporting Families throughout life’), there is a lot of text, but nothing distracting the user on the page. There are no ‘donate’ buttons, no videos, just the text. There is quite a bit of text here though, however it is in a normal font size with plenty of spacing and short paragraphs which make it slightly easier to digest. The first page of the chapter also has a handful of bullet points, which outline positive actions.

A list of ‘sections’ to this ‘chapter’ are on the right. Each section has a couple of paragraphs. However, whilst this is clearly a very well structured document, the navigation makes it near impossible to keep track of where you are, what’s next, and what sections you have already read. There isn’t even the usual change in colour for visited links.

Unable to find a simple bulleted list of the top campaign issues. Therefore the click count is infinite! (That was a maths joke.) The navigational footer of the manifesto page acts as a rough guide. The ’50 steps to a fairer future for all’ is a good summary but not the concise four/five bullets I am looking for.

Liberal Democrats

The first obvious thing about the homepage is the rather irrelevant photo at the top of the page with a TV camera and an out of focus individual. Next, is a video mixer, where the user is invited to pick three topics from large buttons. This cleverly ties these policy areas together in a ‘talking head’ style delivery by the leader, a seamless video covering the topics. The video has inbuilt Twitter and Facebook links.

To the top right are iPhone and Blackberry applications. However, these items will not be the most important to the majority of people trying to find thorough manifesto material on the website (using a desktop/laptop).

What is welcomed, is that still high up on the right column are links to ‘More Version’ which are audio, easy read, paper copy and other languages. This is accessible and inclusive practice, high up on the page and should be commended.

The next significant block down on the right column has PDF policies for specific target niches: disability, racial equality, families, LGBT equality, low income homes, rural communities. This is a very clever way of breaking down the complex amount of information for specific groups of people. What is disappointing is the use of the ‘More coming soon…’ holding text which really should not be there as it gives the impression of an incomplete package.

The main bulk of the page (note you will need to scroll down to reveal all beneath the video player) comprises ten large blocks covering the key political areas. Each block has a link to a summary which goes to a plain text page with a few overview paragraphs. These are very short, direct and in clear text which makes it easy to read on screen. Each block also has a clean-looking PDF (typically between 4-8 pages) which gives full details of that policy area. Finally, nine of the blocks, including the main manifesto itself, have ‘View online’ links.

The ‘View Online’ feature users a page-flip interface (Flash based issuu reader). I am not particularly fond of these systems for displaying information as they impose a non-computer metaphor to a computer-based interface, however some people have reported that it makes them read the document more like a printed book, rather than skim reading a PDF. Reading blue text on a yellow background is a little difficult, however not impossible and it highlights clearly the link to the full manifesto, and also at the bottom of the page a symbolic wide ‘foundation’ block covering ‘Credible and Responsible Finances.’

The manifesto is delivered in a variety of ways: full text, plain english, audio, and video. This is good inclusive practice and also enables the manifesto details to be reached to more people as each person has their own preference when it comes to receiving information.

The PDFs, though not always identified as such on links, are small, which makes it easier to download and print.

Number of clicks to a bulleted summary of the main policies: 4 (Splash page, Home, Manifesto, 4 key policies).

Conservatives

Clicking on the manifesto link from the navigation bar, the user is taken to what appears to be a very different website. Gone are the large, easy to read buttons. In their place a 31 link list down the entire left column of the page, a non-screen-reader-friendly text-graphic at the top of the page, and a large block of very small font text for the main content on the page.

On the right is a filler image of blue sky, followed by downloadable PDFs (labelled: Download Manifesto – Low Resolution, – High Resolution, – Easy Read, – Large Print, – Armed Forces, – Older People, – Public Sector). These PDFs do indicate the file sizes, which is good as the High Resolution PDF is 77MB, which even on a decent home broadband connection takes a good five minutes to download (more like 10mins). The low-res version is 3MB, which again, isn’t that small. However, the sector specific manifestos aren’t very clearly directed at all. Are these documents intended to be read by these sectors, or are they for all to read but outline policies in these areas. Below the PDFs block is the ‘Webcameron’ YouTube portal.

The large block of text is the leader’s message. It’s full of rhetorical questions and short speech-like statements. It’s written like a speech, and not written for web audiences who skim read and need concise and relevant information.

Beneath this, we have the links to the different PDF versions of the full manifesto. Right at the bottom of the page (though you would only know it if you scrolled on) are 31 audio file links to each of the 31 sections of the manifesto. The alternative to this page can be reached by clicking on ‘Policy’ in the site navigation which presents 28 photo buttons leading to different areas of the manifesto.

Taking a look at one of the policy areas (for this we will use ‘Crime’), again, the user is presended with a large (and also inaccessible) image filling the top of the page, followed by a block of small font size text. The paragraphs have sections with bold text, however the opening two paragraphs a critical of the current situation and the bold text actually highlights the problems rather than solutions, which at first glance could be misinterpreted (i.e. the following text is in bold: ‘more time on paperwork than they do out on patrol’). There is little content, and at the bottom of the text are two bullets which indicate the key points.

Their flagship campaign, ‘Big Society’, features at the top of the manifesto list (the list itself is headed up ‘where we stand’). This page contains an overview of societal reform with detailed bullet points. Another section, ‘Housing’, has a slightly different style again using headers to separate sections of the page. Again there are two opening paragraphs criticising the current position, before going into the manifesto points. Each section in the manifesto links out to the Shadow Minister and a related ‘Conservatives.TV’ video. At the top right are related press-releases and a link to blogs.

Number of clicks to a bulleted summary: 1 (Homepage box with five key points).

Comparisons

Why are we comparing these three sites? In order for a voter to make up their mind, they need information about a party’s policies and campaigns from their manifesto. If the information cannot be found easily, then rather than spending time looking for it, the user is likely to check the other parties’ sites. If the other site provides the information easily, they are not likely to revisit other parties and rummage around to find information they were looking for.

The weakest delivery of the manifesto is by the Conservatives, who have not engaged with the nature of website design and adopted a printed-media approach throughout. Unlike the Lib Dem’s focussed 10 policy areas, the Conservatives have adopted an index approach which results in too much time spent by the user looking for the next click, rather than indicating quite clearly the options available.

The Conservatives’ printed media writing style continues throughout the website and makes it very hard for users to digest unless they are determined to read every paragraph. The small font size does not help.

All three parties overload the top ‘half’ of their web pages with filler material or video. This means that every user needs to make the effort to scroll to get to the information they want.

It’s pleasing to see all three sites embracing easy read formats developed in collaboration with Mencap and Photosymbols. The LibDems have the most straightforward access to this once you get to the manifesto page, however the Labour party have the easiest access from the site homepage. The Conservatives’ list of PDF links doesn’t match the linking and clarity of the other two sites.

Comparing the audio versions, there is no contest. Having Richard Wilson voice the Labour manifesto is by far a more pleasurable experience than the slightly aggressive Conservative voice over artist and the Lib Dem audio (which actually sounds almost computer generated though I’m not sure).

Navigation is a bit of an issue for all three parties. Whilst the Lib Dems have the easiest navigation for the manifesto itself, getting there through 4 web pages is a problem. The Labour site has difficult navigation once you get into a manifesto ‘chapter’ with no sense of breadcrumb trail or indication where you are in the manifesto, nor links to next/previous chapters. The Conservatives have the simplest of navigation, directly linking to single pages of information, however because of the sheer volume of links in the navigational list a lot of time is taken over choosing the right link. In addition, the different media used to display the manifesto are not suitably structured in the site or clearly labelled either.

In terms of overall site structure, the Lib Dems have a good layered approach where information is gradually released the further down you go (i.e. overview, to more details), the weakness here is the initial two layers are redundant (splash and homepage). Labour also has a good layered approach but is severely hindered by poor sectional and next/previous navigation. The conservatives have no layered approach, everything appears on one page and this can be quite overwhelming and long to read, however once you get over the long list of links it’s quick to find the page you want, if not the information. In terms of presenting bulleted summaries, the Conservative homepage comes first, followed by the Lib Dems section-based summaries.

The way that the manifesto areas are named differentiates the parties. Labour names its manifesto sections in very natural language, the majority use language that relates to society, family and personal well being (e.g. a green future for Britain). The Conservatives use simple, one word, politically defined sections (e.g. environment). The Lib Dems use ‘Your’ to prefix each of their sections, which in copy writing is known to attempt to draw connection to a direct individual, i.e. the user (e.g. your world).

In terms of presenting manifesto pages, Labour have a very clear page structure with no extra surrounding boxes or widgets, just the manifesto text. Lib Dems and Conservatives surround their text with extra functions (news/blogs, videos, donate links, etc) and this can detract from the central message. This shows that the Labour manifesto content pages are very specific in their purpose, as opposed to being clouded by other motivations.

Conclusion

None of the sites get it spot on, which is a shame considering the amount of money that would have been spent here. However to sum up each site in a handful of words:

  • Labour: Nice design, now add some navigation.
  • Lib Dem: Easy to navigate, once you arrive.
  • Conservative: For crying out loud, reduce your word count.

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