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    By Daniel Will-Harris
The first time I saw Al Gore I didn’t know who he was, but I said to my wife, “he’s going to be president some day.” It was 1987, and Gore was hosting “The Capital Steps” (a comedy group in Washington that does political satire) on CSPAN and he was in the skits, very funny and relaxed. Not the Al Gore most people see. Don’t laugh—I have successfully picked the Miss America winners for the past 20 years just by seeing the line up at the start of the show, so I’m good at these things, dubious a talent as it may be.

So when Al opened his new web site, www.AlGore2000.com, I had to take a look. And what I saw was a model of good web design.

What’s so good about it? It’s not just the way it looks (which is fine, very clean and professional), it’s the way it works. It leads you through a very cleverly orchestrated process.

People tend to think the web can’t be linear—that you have to let your visitors link their way in any particular order. But this site is very smart because while you can go anywhere you want, if you are interested, it really leads you through a very specific path.

>Leading your site visitor

It starts by presenting info about Al, and also showing a prominent poll on the side, asking you what issues you think are most important. This is vital information for any campaign, so getting answers to this is really important. But rather than just thanking you when it’s done, it presents you with the chance to sign up for Al’s e-mail list. Just enter your name and address right there.

OK, so that’s easy—and important. E-mail lists are valuable—they let you keep in contact with, well, in this case your “constituents” but in most people’s case it’s customers or contacts. I signed up, just to see what would happen, and now I get, on average, one per week. Telling me where Gore is, what he’s said, when he’s on Larry King, etc. If you don’t yet have an e-mail list for your site, you should be working on it, right now. More about that in a future column.

OK, so if you sign up for Al’s mailing list, you’re taken to a page where you can sign up to be a campaign volunteer. Do you see the progression? If you were interested enough to answer a questionnaire, they figured you were interested enough to sign up for e-mail updates. If you were interested enough for that, they figured you might be interested enough to volunteer.

Say “yes” to this and what happens? A page appears where you where you can buy authorized “GoreGear,” campaign buttons, hats, shirts, etc. Oh, and there’s a small, tasteful “Make a donation to the campaign” link on all these pages, too, just in case you want to “say it with cash.” These guys thought of everything.

It’s a logical progression, and they do it in such a clean, clear, simple way, that they actually make it easy for you to do these things. You don’t have to search for them—they just take you there. If you don’t want to sign up, you don’t have to, you still have navigation that lets you go anywhere else on the site.

This is really brilliant design—because it’s looking at the way people think, making logical assumptions, then making it easier for people to get involved.

And let’s not ignore the fact that you can view the entire site in Spanish, too, in a single link.

But wait, that’s just the tip of the iceberg (and no, I’m not referring to Al as an iceberg, sheesh!).

>Right to the source (code)

This site isn’t superficial. Look below the surface—read the HTML source code (choose View/Source in your browser). Here’s what you’ll see:

    “Thanks for checking out our source code! I plan to use this space to post special messages to those who are helping to improve our web site — by making our source code the best it can be. The fact that you are peeking behind the scenes at our site means you can make an important difference to this Internet effort. I’m grateful for your help and support in this campaign. Now let’s keep working to build the 21st Century of our dreams! —Al Gore”

Genius. Talk about targeted marketing. If you weren’t a web-head, you wouldn’t be reading it, so you wouldn’t miss it. But if you are interested in web-building, then of course you checked out the code, and what you get a message aimed right between your eyes.

They use this “cheap” space (cheap because it’s plain ASCII text and doesn’t take long to download) to target a message directly to web developers and programmers.

Your group or business may not need to appeal to this particular group, but if it does—consider putting a personal message in your source code, too.

But as well as acknowledging that techies are reading the source, the Gore web site then enlists their help:

    You’re viewing the source code of algore2000.com, the official  Gore 2000 Campaign Web Site. If you like to program HTML, JavaScript, Java, C, Cold Fusion, Active Server Pages, Perl, cgi, or any other language used for web publishing — if you are casually browsing our code, and you are interested in becoming actively involved with the campaign as a volunteer — then you’ve come to the right place!  In the spirit of the open-source movement, we have established  the Gore 2000 Volunteer Source Code Project. The source code project will make this one of the most open and interactive political campaigns ever.  When we expand the site in the coming months, content from source code volunteers from around the nation will be posted according to  its geographic origin. For instance, if you are from Iowa or New Hampshire or California and you want to volunteer by writing content (in the programming language or on the platform of your choice) for those parts of the site, we urge you to do so. Geographic origin is one criteria by which volunteer submissions will be judged. If you have an idea or concept that transcends geographic location, let us know and we will do our best to incorporate it into the site. All individual volunteer ideas and submissions will be considered, and successful submissions will be credited as they go on-line. This site is a living document, and we want it to get better every day. Your participation is crucial to its success. To get involved with the Gore 2000 Volunteer Source Code Project, e-mail us at: sourcecodevolunteers@algore2000.com

    Tell us who you are, and if possible, (include the URLs for any work you have done to show us your talents, interests and abilities). Thanks for checking out our source code — and we are looking forward to hearing from you!

Some die-hard “open source” propeller heads are whining that this isn’t the “true meaning” of open source. Oh, please. Get a life. Open source should be about “distributed thinking”—using the collaborative resources of the web, not just about one group that uses that name. The fact is that this is smart—very smart. Someone was thinking.

>A bird in the hand...

While George W. Bush has not yet officially entered the race, he already has a web site at bush2000.com—It’s not badly designed, and has Bush’s smiling face surrounded by the flag (so Republican). It also has a Spanish version, which is good, and makes sense since, like Gore, Bush speaks fluent Spanish.

But this site makes some mistakes. First—it isn’t at all interactive, the way the Gore site is. It’s static. It talks at you, rather than with you. While it does have a place where you can sign up to volunteer, it doesn’t lead you through a progression, as the Gore site does. Perhaps more important, it doesn’t ask for your comments, questions or feedback. This kind of one-way communication shows a lack of understanding of how the web works. And perhaps a lack of understanding of the future—at least by the people who put this site together.

The site also has some technical problems—words that are cut off in the graphics at the top, and while they look like links to various sections, they aren’t, they just decorative. The site was created in Front Page, which is fine, except that it’s vendor and platform specific so it could offend some people with a technical background. The Gore site is careful to be open and non OS or product specific. People do notice these things.

This is not an “official” site yet, it’s from the “exploratory” committee. But even so, it’s just not nearly as polished or professional as Gore’s site.

And its content isn’t aimed at the reader, but is more of an advertisement for the people who created it. This is a common, but dangerous mistake. The first time I visited, the site was so busy trumpeting the fact that they’d already raised $6 million for a campaign that hadn’t even started yet they didn’t talk about issues. The site sometimes reads like all those companies with Venture Capital talking about money instead of ideas.

In short, it doesn’t show the candidate in the best light to anyone—but especially not to the web-savvy who are looking at sites right at the start of the campaign.

>Go Gore

So what can we learn from this? First, it’s clear that Gore’s team really understands the web and is making it a vital part of the campaign, right from the start. If they think it’s this important, then certainly you should think it’s this important for whatever work you do.

And finally—this site is a model of good planning, design and implementation. There are a lot of sites on the web, but not that many that are this well done. I learned from this site and I’m sure you could, too.

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Daniel Will-Harris is a designer and author whose work can be found http://www.will-harris.com. His site features TypoFile Magazine and EsperFonto, the web’s only typeface selection system.

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Copyright Daniel Will-Harris, 2001, All Rights Reserved