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Can poor usability affect the Swedish EMU vote?

By Alexander Piatidis, September 2003

The 14th of September is the date of the referendum on whether Sweden should join the European monetary union, a question that can be decisive for the future of the country's economy.

A number of organisations have be given a considerable budget to convey information and opinions to voters, but none of them seem to have put much effort into informing voters via the web. Many of the web sites of these organisations fail to present their message in a manner which easy to access for the 'Internet public', who demand for quick and simple access to information.

Usability Partners have conducted expert usability evaluations of the web sites belonging to the organisations that received the largest allocation of funds for the EMU-campaign.We were surprised by the shortcomings in their attempts to present information to the voters.

Here are some examples of the problems that were found on the web sites:

Lack of structure

The most significant problem concerns the lack of structure to information for voters. Instead of structuring the web sites based on issues of concern to users, they have let the internal organisational structure steer the way they structured the web site. The result is that key arguments and other important information are difficult to find.

Web sites designed for those interested in politics and with plenty of time

Reports, long texts and newsletters are common on the different web sites. These texts demand time and some effort from readers - most visitors probably aren't prepared wade into them to find information. Information adapted to the needs to the audience and better use of the navigation to ease finding specific subjects would have made content more broadly accessible.

Visually intense pages make it difficult to focus on key texts

Some sites had pages with annoying animations, pictures that could be confused with adverts, and lots of different pieces of text that were difficult to overview. One site, after allocating space to pictures/adverts, navigation and related links, only left a tiny proportion of the space on pages available to the presentation of actual content. User attention is easily drawn away from content to surrounding animations and pictures.

Material unsuited for online presentation makes up much of the content

Heavy use is made of presentation material in PDF format, which is best suited for printouts and not for reading on the computer screen. Opening the pdf-reader, loading the document and scrolling through it takes a lot of time. When viewing such PDF documents on the screen it is also often difficult to get an overview of the content. PDFs containing brochures with a lot of pictures are exceptionally bad - they can be pleasant to look at in paper form, but little use for online viewing and many people are unwilling to print such graphic/colour intensive pages on their own printers.

Lack of consistency in links

Clicking on different menu options, links and pictures, can often have unpredictable effects. On one home page, clicking on one picture resulted in pictures changing place whereas clicking on another picture led to a new page, seemingly with no relationship to the home page (it could just as well have been a different web site).

Another common problem with links was found on another site - very small arrows were used to the right of title texts as the links to full article texts. Such small clickable areas are hard to find and demand precision from the user (a particular problem for older users, Internet novices and people with disabilities).

Unprofessional impression

One home page had a black background, a yellow blinking line and a large photograph of the head office of "LO" occupying most of the page. Whilst being the worst example, several other sites gave a less than serious impression.

The two web sites that came out worst in our evaluation were those belonging to the organisations "Nej till EMU" (No to EMU) and "Ja till Europa" (Yes to Europe). These web sites lacked relevant content, were difficult to navigate and had inconsistent links/navigation. These sites may result in more confusion than insight for users. "Medborgare mot EMU" (Citizens opposed to EMU) succeeded better with their web site - with a clear structure, good layout and suitable text lengths for web pages, they conveyed content better than the other sites, albeit with rather small text.

t is the 21st century and we're convinced that many Swedish voters used the Internet to look for relevant information to support their decisions. It is a shame that these organisations, who are intended to supply voters with information for each of the standpoints, don't succeed in doing so on the Internet - unfortunately it would probably have been better for some organisations not to publish their web sites at all. The Internet is a powerful medium, however, by not properly considering the needs of end users and usability issues in the presentation of information, the opportunity of efficient contact with a large number of voters is lost.

The web sites of the following organisations were reviewed:

These organisations were given the largest budgets for the EMU referendum (source: the Swedish parliament).

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