Web Design and the New SCOTUS Site

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US Supreme Court websiteThe Supreme Court recently unveiled its new website. It’s an improvement, but still has some major flaws. Are you making any of these mistakes on your website?

Visitors to www.supremecourtus.gov (now redirecting to www.supremecourt.gov — and yes, you need the “www”) will notice a recent face-lift on the site. I learned about the change from someone I follow on Twitter, and while I don’t remember exactly how that person phrased it, I got the impression this was going to be good. Not so much.

The site lists the big changes over the previous iteration, which are all well and good. But it could have been much better. Here’s my critique, from a very basic web design perspective:

Overall design elements

  • Hideous colors! Or at least, no continuity of color. Apparently they were unfamiliar with the awesomeness of http://colorschemedesigner.com/
  • TABLES!?! Please don’t design with tables. Designing with tables should be reversible error.
  • Random spacing/padding in the columns. This is bound to happen when you lay out your site with tables. For a really easy-to-swallow tutorial on why and how to design using web standards, check out Why Tables for Layout is Stupid.

Graphics

  • Strange little square header graphics. These little gems are what convinced me this site was created in Publisher or MS Word. Something about these just scream 1997 clipart.
  • Pixelated top banner. Unfortunately, not even the Supreme Court can convince me that the quill and ink inscription at the top of the Constitution has jagged edges.
  • Unlooped slow-dissolve animation. Props to the Court for not using any animated GIFs (although the database to access federal judicial materials still features one prominently at the bottom).

Functionality

  • Calender seems buggy. Or perhaps that’s just because I’m visiting the page with Chrome, a browser that tends to expect at least minimal web standards compliance.
  • You call that a search? I’m perhaps a bit overly disappointed that there are zero advanced search options. In my opinion, if you’re serving simple text documents from a database, let the user choose the criteria by which they’re displayed. This is not rocket science.
  • No HTML opinions, only PDF. I’ll give the court credit for the fact that the PDFs are converted from electronic documents, and therefore searchable within the browser if you have a PDF viewer plugin. I would not have been surprised to find scanned reporter pages here, though.
  • Left-nav menus. If you have sub-menus that all have “more” in them instead of just listing all the pages, you’re missing the point of having sub-menus.

Let’s look at the code

  • Generically-named everything. It’s good web design practice to name things in ways that make contextual sense. This is good for the web designer who needs to go in and change things, good for search engines, and good for screen-reader accessibility.  See the main style sheet for an illustration of how this site missed the boat on naming.
  • I really can’t get over the tables. This code is amazingly bloated for the minimal number of things that need to be happening on this page. Take a lesson from WordPress, SCOTUS: you are only running one widget here, you have no excuse to be so clunky.

Is it possible I’ve discovered something worse than web design by committee? Let’s call it web design by court.

For other perspectives on the SCOTUS site change, see:

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  • Although I see your point, and the intent is to show what not to do. But I think we should give them a little credit. It’s far better than the old site in my opinion.

  • Chris Bumgarner

    Actually, I think the site was designed with MS Visual Studio. Two clues are the fact that all of the html body content is wrapped up in an html form element (It’s the first tag to open and the last tag to close). And the 7.5kb Base64 encoded viewstate string. Both oddities are typical of Visual Studio.