A new web culture coming to government?

Even a quick comparison between change.gov (run by the Obama team) and presidentialtransition.gov (run by the US General Services Agency – GSA) is fascinating.

The former shows its Facebook heritage — beautiful URLs, pages with very tight information architecture, calls to action, a blog, and a navigational model that lets people find what they need fast (journalists go to the newsroom and the blog, people passionate about specific issues get to find out what Obama has to say about them _and_ contribute their own ideas).

The latter shows that it’s the issue of a huge process, where the human face gets lost. The most prominent link, right under the redundant link to the home page in the sidebar, is to an organizational chart which of course is a PDF — is there anything more link-friendly than an organizational chart, and a document format less suited for hierarchies than PDFs? It doesn’t matter, as I can’t get the downloaded file to open in my PDF viewer — most likely they never tested the site with Macs, or maybe even with Firefox.

The font chosen by the former is deliberately presidential, with serifs used to convey gravitas, while being easy to read. The font chosen by the latter is authoritative (see the great documentary Helvetica). The paragraphs in the former are short, with larger fonts, and thus readable. The paragraphs in the latter are long, with long lines, and too boring to bother reading.

Of course, it’s not a fair comparison, because the latter is intended for a much smaller audience than the former. Still, it makes one hope that someday we’ll be able to go to governmental websites to perform routine business and it might just be as easy as poking someone on Facebook…


  1. This post would have been much easier to read if you had decided to forgo the “former” and “latter” switching and put the features into a table or split the discussion into two halves: first discuss change.gov, then compare and contrast presidentialtransition.gov.


  2. I mostly agree with what you said, but not with the stuff about fonts. No website should force any font (or even serif vs. sans) on the user, but instead rely on the user browser’s settings. [Well, unless one wants specific effects for some parts of pages, like matching company logos.]

    In addition, sans fonts are in general more readable on screen, so the GSA page got that right. On my system Obama’s page for some reason displayed in a very ugly serif font (seems that Times is a badly produced bitmap font here).


  3. change.gov is of course dramatically better, but I expect it’s a function of the amount of time and money that went into it. I speculate that Obama’s campaign paid for change.gov and contracted out the design to professionals; and that the other page was designed by a federal government employee using Front Page.

    btw, I hope no government web site I ever have to use is as intensely annoying as Facebook.


  4. This all sounds really interesting. As I only watched the election from far away I haven’t noticed such a website so far. I’ll do it now. So thanks for that hint.


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