Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN)
This is the first in my series of critiques on the websites of current U.S. Senators. To try and keep things fair-ish, I’ll be judging on the following criteria.
My initial gut reaction to the look of the site. This is the most biased section of the critique.
It’s 2015. Mobile web usage is set to take over desktop web usage any day now. The sites of duly elected representatives should represent this fact, no pinching or zooming required.
It may come as a shock to some elected officials that the United States of America does not rank very highly on broadband penetration or speed. If we take it as a given that U.S. Senators want their sites to be visited, we should measure how quickly one of their constituents can do so. I’ll be using Google Pagespeed Insights for this.
There are more citizens with disabilities in the United States than total citizens of some European countries. With that in mind, how friendly is the site to users with a disability? I’m going to use the excellent WAVE tool for determining any glaring problems.
I will admit I was pleasantly surprised by Senator Alexander’s site on first view. If every senator’s site is this well-designed, my opinion of the U.S. Senate will go up dramatically. Someone on Senator Alexander’s team knows what they’re doing, or at least knows how to hire people who do. The navigation is fairly straightforward, the social calls to action are prominent but not dominating, and the color scheme is fairly consistent. As Tennessee is currently undergoing a major tech boom, it bodes well that the site for one of their senators is modern and functional.
My feeling of pleasant surprise continued as I explored Senator Alexander’s site on mobile and tablet.
If Senator Alexander’s staff (or whoever created this site for him) reads this post, give yourself a pat on the back. You’re doing better than some Fortune 500 companies by responding well to mobile devices.
On mobile, the site’s content collapses into a list of articles that’s fairly easy to scroll through. (The fact that all the articles in the ‘Featured’ section have the same picture of Senator Alexander is amusing, but not necessarily bad.)
On tablet in portrait, this same list expands horizontally, filling more of the screen. On tablet in landscape, we get a smaller version of the desktop site. Some may argue the site is not truly responsive, only adaptive, but it’s close enough that it’s worth applauding.
The results of Google’s Pagespeed Insights on Senator Alexander’s site are the first major point of sadness I had in this critique.
There’s obviously some problems with the site’s speed on mobile, and if you’re trying to access this site on a 3G or (God forbid) 2G network, I hope you’ve got a bit of time to kill. The key points of Google’s analysis are similar for desktop and mobile, and can fairly safely be considered industry standards: Get asset loading out of the <head>, minimize or compress assets wherever possible, and cache heavily.
More pleasant surprise: Senator Alexander’s site does pretty well under WAVE evaluation. There’s only one usability error (add alt text to all your images, Senator!), and the worst bit is the contrast errors around the shades of blue on the bottom of the page. It’s tempting to blame Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for that particular problem. I’m not sure if the sites for U.S. Senators fall under the same accessibility guidelines as the bulk of government services (although I’m sure someone on the Internet will tell me), but Senator Alexander is doing better than, for example, the IRS.
Overall, I’m fairly impressed by what Senator Alexander’s site has going for it. Someone in his office (in my fantasy, the Senator of a tech-boom state himself) cares deeply about having a modern and usable web presence. Let’s hope the rest of the U.S. Senate does as well.
P.S. The Senator’s office may not have control over this, but it would be great if the site was available over, and redirected to, correctly-configured HTTPS.