Before getting to the tips, let’s establish that there are two ways of getting candidate biographical information in the system. One, by permitting the candidates to submit their own biographical information, or two, by the election manager collecting those biographies from the candidates and entering it into the system for the candidates. Without exception, the preferred method should always to be have the candidates submit their own biographies. Within that method there are two different approaches for doing that. One, to offer candidates a free text field into which they may enter anything they wish, or two, to create a form into which they enter responses specific to some section of the biography. In this context, a section could mean education, work experience, governance experience, or whatever an election manager has declared to be a section.
Regardless of how biographies make their way into the system, election managers still have the opportunity to edit biographies once the deadline has passed for candidates to make their own edits and there are some best practices that should be followed before an election opens up to voters. The text formatting tools available for editing these biographies—while relatively limited compared to a full-fledged word processor—include everything necessary for editing a candidate biography. Despite the simplicity of the text editing controls, it still allows enough flexibility to do some things with the format of the biography that are not ideal and that degrade the experience for the voter. This post therefore outlines some best practices to ensure your candidate biographies are as “visually digestible” and voter friendly as possible.
- Work in plain text. When candidates submit their own biographies, they have no choice but to work in plain text—though they may use markdown to apply some basic formatting to that text. Therefore, given that having candidates submit their own biographies should always be the approach taken, there should never be an occasion when you have candidates biographies not in plain text. Having said that, in the event an election manager is submitting biographies on behalf of candidates, realize that you should always work in plain text. There are multiple methods for committing text to a candidate biography. You may type directly in the editor window; paste text directly into the window; paste as plain text; or Paste from Word. Never use Paste from Word. At least almost never. Paste from Word is provided as a convenience, but I’ve often wondered if eliminating it from the toolbar would be the better service because it’s when clients use this option that they most often end up with poorly formatted biographies. As an example of why not to use Paste from Word, consider the following. It is possible to create tables in Word so that text may be placed into columns. Using the Paste from Word option in the biography editor preserves these tables which can be problematic since the table can end up being wider than the viewable area. This is especially true given the small size of the window in which candidate biographies are viewed. When the content is wider than the viewable area, the user must scroll the page horizontally and vertically, rather than just vertically resulting in poor usability. Paste from Word also preserves the font family and size settings and those may not be consistent with the fonts used on the ballot itself, or even consistent with other biographies if you used different methods for different candidates. Now, Paste from Word doesn’t have to lead to problems and in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing, it’s a perfectly innocuous tool. But for the reasons listed above, it’s generally safest to simply work in plain text either by typing directly into the text window, or by using the Paste as Plain Text tool in the toolbar. Formatting may then be applied to that text using the tools provided in the biography editor.
- Don’t underline anything that’s not a link. You may have been taught in typing class to underline something to give it emphasis. That’s how it’s done on a typewriter since typewriters don’t have options for applying italics and bolding. But computers aren’t typewriters and on web pages, underlined text is regarded as a hyperlink that may be clicked. If you need to provide emphasis to something, use italics or bold instead.
- Don’t use all caps. Not only is it considered yelling, it’s also harder to read. Read more at Don’t Use All Caps in Ballot Setup.
- Use bullet points. When you need to make a collection of points, don’t list them one after another in run-on sentences. Instead, use short text “bursts” formatted in either bullet points or numbered lists. Realize that numbered lists are sometimes associated with a set of instructions displayed as sequential steps, therefore, bullet lists are likely to be more appropriate for displaying a collection of points, but use your best judgment for this.
- Use Verdana as the font. Other fonts can be perfectly suitable. However, because the ballot pages use Verdana, you’ll maintain uniformity across the ballot and the biographies if Verdana’s used there also. In fact, it is the default font and the only way to override that is to Paste From Word, which is discouraged.
- Don’t display anything not of value to the voter. This might seem like a no-brainer, but I have actually seen biographies that display what amounts to notes to the candidates about how to provide their biographies. While such notes, or instructions, might be of value to the candidates as they’re submitting biographies, they are worthless to the voter and only clutter things up if not removed prior to the start of voting. Again, we always aim for a “visually digestible” display meaning the eye can absorb a page’s content and move through it easily without having to decide what parts of the pages are not germane and not skipped. In a well-formatted biography, there’s nothing to skip.
- Make use of the horizontal rule. In the toolbar of the biography editor, on the second row, sixth tool from the left (at the time of this writing), is the most underused tool in the editor. You have the ability to create some visual separation between parts of the biography by inserting a horizontal rule on the page. Make use of it, but be judicious and don’t overdo it.
- Maintain consistency in what is included in a candidate biography. Give your candidates some instruction about what they may include in their biography. If you only want them to include a statement about why they should be elected, tell them that. If you wish them to list achievements or certifications, tell them that. But don’t make it a free-for-all where one candidate submits a statement, while another lists degrees and achievements. After looking over the first biography, the voter will be conditioned to look for the same type of information, in the same position, with the same formatting, on all other biographies. Providing them with what they expect ensures they don’t have a jarring experience while voting.