Best and Worst Design: 50 U.S. State Websites

by on 31st May 2012 with 22 Comments

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In the past, we took a look at fifty of the best and worst university websites from around the United States, a post which launched an interesting discussion about how web design projects can be destroyed by committees and politics, even if talented designers are leading up the team.

Today we’re following that up with a similar discussion on official state websites. Which U.S. states have the absolute best looking websites and which have sites that look like they haven’t been updated since Clinton was in the Oval Office? Read on to see how your state ranked.

And The Winner Is…

Let’s face it, government websites are an easy target. In the world of web design critiques, they’re pretty much the low hanging fruit. For this reason, I wanted to start off with the positive feedback. To my surprise, not every state website was horrible. In fact, some of them are quite nice!

With that in mind, my personal pick for the best official U.S. state website is Utah.

Utah

I’ve said it a thousand times on Design Shack: good photography makes for good design, and this site proves it. I couldn’t call this site ugly even if I wanted to. As soon as the page loads, you see this giant, gorgeous photograph that immediately sucks you in.

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Beyond the gorgeous photo though, there are several reasons that I think this site succeeds. First of all, government websites are known for being just a massive list of links, which you’ll see in some of the other sites below. A list of links is only helpful to a point, but once you add too much to it, it ceases to be useful and simply turns into a mess that’s impossible to sort through.

So how do you organize a site when the amount of information at your fingertips is mind boggling? The people behind the Utah website realized that this problem was solved long ago with search engines. When you visit Google, virtually the entire web is a few clicks away. Rather than attempting to list every site on the web though, they provide a few simple categories and leave the rest up to search, that way you can get exactly what you want in seconds.

Utah’s website might look like a ripoff of Bing, but I think it’s just about perfect. If I want to renew my driver’s license, I type in “DMV” and right away get where I want to go.

Also be sure to scroll down the page, I really like how they separated the background images with flowing arches. Top to bottom, it’s just a great design and I didn’t hesitate to name it the winner in this little contest.

The Cream of The Crop

This is the list of “also ran” sites that clearly stood out as better than average. Those that I tend to favor pick up the large photo, search engine theme that we saw in the Utah site. A few of them, such as the Alabama site, are marred by small things like ugly stock icons, but are otherwise quite good.

In the realm of unique designs, I thought Georgia was a solid entrant. It’s not the most beautiful site I’ve ever seen, but I really appreciate how unique it looks. The color palette is bright and friendly and the entire thing has a custom feel that is the very opposite of boring and templated.

The second place site, and really it probably should be the first place site (dang my visually biased brain), is Rhode Island. The reason for this is that the site is actually responsive! I definitely did not expect any of these sites to be that forward thinking. Hats off to the folks behind the Rhode Island site, it’s beautiful and highly functional; stellar work.

Alabama

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Colorado

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Georgia

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Indiana

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Maine

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Missouri

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Rhode Island

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South Dakota

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Tennessee

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Could Be Worse

In this section, we have the state sites that aren’t necessarily horrible. I wouldn’t call them attractive, nor would I call most of them highly usable, but they’re not bad enough to openly trash.

A lot of the problems with these sites really become more apparent when you view them up close, so be sure to click through on a few of them. Looking through my thumbnails, I thought about moving a few of them to the previous category, but when I followed the links and viewed them large again, I quickly understood why I had placed them in this category. Ugly typography, poorly styled links, and nasty low resolution images abound here.

With some love and attention, several of these sites could be made “good,” but in their current incarnations several of them feel a little sloppy. If they aren’t sloppy, they’re just dated. Overuse of rounded corners, really dark drop shadows and bevel/emboss effects simply scream “this website is ten years old” to me.

This certainly doesn’t speak to all of the sites in this category though. For instance, I think the Texas site is actually quite good. It’s simply boring and uninteresting. I think there should be a balance here between giving local residents what they need and selling out of state residents on where you live.

The Utah site sells me immediately. When you see that photo, you want to go there right away. The Texas site on the other hand, simply doesn’t make me want to visit. TravelTexas does a little better, but there’s still nothing that really grabs me.

Alaska

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Arkansas

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California

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Connecticut

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Delaware

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Hawaii

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Idaho

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Illinois

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Iowa

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Kansas

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Kentucky

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Massachussetts

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Mississippi

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Montana

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Nevada

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New Mexico

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North Dakota

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Ohio

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Oklahoma

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Pennsylvania

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South Carolina

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Texas

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Vermont

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Virginia

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West Virginia

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Really? This Is What You Came Up With?

Up to this point, I’ve tried my best to be nice. Real people work on all of these sites and we should never forget that they’re surely not trying to make bad websites. That being said, I really don’t feel like the states in this category are really investing a lot of time and effort making their site the best it can be. If they are, it’s even sadder because these websites are a train wreck of hideous aesthetics and nightmarish organizational schemes.

I’d like to note that the first state on this list is my home: Arizona. You’d think I might be biased and go easy on them, but it’s the opposite. I’m actually ashamed that my state can’t come up with something better. To be fair, the organization isn’t too bad, the biggest problem is that the site is just flat out ugly. It simply does not reflect an understanding of modern web design practices.

With all the negativity that I’m slinging on Arizona, it’s actually one of the best sites in this category! Most of the pages here are straight out of the 1995 web design playbook. Let’s take some time to openly criticize a few because they’re earned it.

Warning: Harsh Criticism Enclosed

Hey North Carolina, the screen doesn’t stop after 800 pixels. Oh, and Nebraska, simply because you can make your text all different colors doesn’t mean that you should.

I’m sure everyone is jealous of those super intense rounded corners on the New York site though, the whole page is like an unpleasant pill that you just have to swallow while hoping it doesn’t have a bad aftertaste that’s going to stick with you all day.

You have to give Wyoming some credit, they had the guts to just stick a huge pile of money in the header. That’s the visual hardworking tax payers want to see! I could go on for days, but I’ll spare you. Here are the sites if you can bear to look.

Arizona

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Louisiana

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Maryland

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Michigan

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Minnesota

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Nebraska

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New Hampshire

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New Jersey

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New York

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North Carolina

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Oregon

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Washington

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Wisconsin

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Wyoming

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The Prize for Worst Site Goes To…

It wasn’t hard to pick the best site for this post, but it was very difficult to choose the worst. The sites in the pervious category are all pretty bad, but the one that really just made me wonder if the entire web team simply died off a decade ago was Florida.

Florida

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I have to be honest, I’m not sure if the organization here is decent or not because I can’t bring myself to read it. Initially, I wasn’t even sure if this was the actual official site, but as far as I can tell, it is. It’s obvious that the Florida Governor’s Office is gobbling up the entire web design budget, leaving nothing left for the poor abandoned state site.

Interestingly enough, the layout here is actually repeated in several of the sites above. My assumption is that most state websites at one point shared this general template and some, like Florida, simply haven’t moved on yet. Let’s hope they have someone working on it. The world would be a better place if this site design were dead.

How Does Your State Stack Up?

Now that you’ve seen my praise and brutal criticism for the fifty state sites, it’s time for you to chime in. Do you agree with my assessments or would you move around a few of the sites to different categories? Where do you live and what do you think of the site for that place?

I realize that a huge chunk of our readers are based outside of the U.S., so I’d love to hear from these readers as well. Leave a link to your local government site along with your opinion of where it belongs on this list.

Comments & Discussion

22 Comments

  • Bob

    I have to agree about Florida. Every time I saw my dad try to use that website, it was like playing Where’s Waldo with the link he wanted. The site organization is horrible and you have to hunt for what you want. They really need someone to at least improve the usability, and to try and make it as attractive as the Utah website, especially when tourism is such a big part of Florida.

  • Mel Lang

    Love this collection of sites, and I totally agree! Lots of government or university websites look terrible, but most of the time they are also badly structured – and thats just not cool.

  • http://corbacho.info David Corbacho

    “just made me wonder if the entire web team simply died off a decade ago was Florida”
    LOL

    Georgia website I know is powered by Drupal, and many other .gov sites:
    http://groups.drupal.org/government-sites#USA

  • Francisco Campos

    My home state…florida… unfortunately true, the site is disgusting, they should really revamp that site…it looks like it was made like 20 years ago and never again updated!

  • Erica

    I love this link. I am a designer from New Jersey and I think our site could be a lot better. They over charge us for everything the least they could do is provide a better design for the content’s main page. I love the Utah one it is beautiful!

  • http://studiojwal.com Josh – Studio JWAL

    It’s a bit discouraging to consider how much designers were paid to build these sites when you’re confident you could wake up at 6 and put together the same site by lunch.

    Josh

  • Nik

    I’m glad to see the state I’m not ashamed to call my “home”, Tennessee, was on the list of good designs. They updated their whole online package a year or so ago and it’s a marked improvement to their old design. However the state in which I was born and currently live for school, Florida, is not really surprising. Not only is their main design disgusting to look at but it’s complicated as hell and there is no design unity between the tremendous amount of different websites that can be lumped into their online presence. That’s not even the worst of all of the problems in this state at the moment, though…

  • Jack

    Wisconsin has to be #49.

    What’s worse is the state of Wisconsin offers that template free to communities. Many small towns have used it and look just as bad.

    Check out the source code. Nothing but tables.

    The css stylesheet is css/global_netscape.css. Netscape???

  • http://deborahapeters.com Deborah Peters

    Oh wow….I’m from AZ and it deserves to be on the bad list, how embarrassing. Like what you’ve done here, great Post!

  • dj

    I know you were reviewing, pretty much exclusively, the aesthetics of the sites and not the usability; however, after having spent hundreds of hours trying to use all of the WESTERN US state web sites for my site (www.offroadinghome.com, no not a pretty site by your standards, but highly useful) I can tell you from first hand experience that you picked the correct “top site.” Compared to the others you list, the Utah site is a cake-walk to find what you are looking for. Try following the “map” link in the main menu of the nevada site. You get a cute 404 page implying that nevada is CLOSED.

  • http://Georgia.gov nate parsons

    Georgia.gov is actually responsively designed as well…

  • chrissy

    Alabama background is beautiful. Unfortunately, the white text on the busy background is really hard to read. These sites looked like they are cloned: Utah, Indiana and South Dakota look almost alike.

  • http://twitter.com/hillary Hillary Hartley

    “The Utah site sells me immediately. When you see that photo, you want to go there right away. The Texas site on the other hand, simply doesn’t make me want to visit.”

    While I agree with you, and really appreciate this post, state websites aren’t designed to sell or entice you to visit. They are designed to deliver information and online services to residents or people doing business with the state.

    Good design (read: usable) doesn’t have to be beautiful (read: huge, pretty photographs), but I’ll agree that it helps with stickiness.

    Also — in addition to Rhode Island having a responsive site, there are a few others: Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah (the sub-pages, anyway).

    *disclaimer, I work for NIC Inc. — the parent company of the teams who designed Utah, 6/9 Cream of the Crops, 14/15 Could Be Betters, and 1 of the Warning sites (which is launching a redesign soon!).

  • Ryan

    Wow that is rough. I agree that functionality is key, but when I go to a site, I don’t want to see 500 things right off the bat. Clean and simple raises the functionality, something of which AZ did not do. I think GA nailed it.

    Thanks Josh!

  • http://twitter.com/hillary Hillary Hartley

    Edits to my responsive list, apologies… No on Nebraska and Idaho (at least not yet).

  • http://www.navigatormm.com Navigator Multimedia

    This article is hilarious( I love the critical commentary!), and I completely agree with the first-rank spot to Utah. The workflow dynamic is seamless.
    Seriously surprised to see the crummy effort on New York’s part there.
    Cheers!
    Sarah Bauer
    Navigator Multimedia

  • derpina

    I bet this list would be very different if you took into consideration accessibility and useability, what if javascript was turned off?

  • Dinah Washington

    Now that Florida’s website has been named the worst in the country, you should help them and build them a new one!

  • SharePointer

    What you aren’t taking into consideration is that these are STATE sites-they have very different user needs then a lot of sites. Depending on the state, the user’s could be very non-technical, older, and not in to social media. Utah has the highest rate of broadband usage in the country-that makes it easier for them to create a site with images that are over 100k. Try doing that for a state with poor broadband coverage. Most of the sites in your favs list are straight copies of Utah-how innovative is that? And while you may think Texas has a visually unappealing site, once you start going through the site you would see that it has some pretty smart functionality. Can it stand to use some more personality-of course. But I bet the users of the site appreciate how fast it loads and that they have some actual content they can work with rather than just a giant search box.

  • http://stephaniesuits.com Stephanie

    Maybe Florida will notice the harsh criticism and do something about it – I loathe having to navigate my home state’s site. It’s not just the design either. I’d rank the usability somewhere between 0 and “Seriously?!” There’s even a few link trails in there that lead back to the page you started at.

  • http://www.nickdoesdesign.com Nick

    So, can we all just for a moment appreciate that most of the “well designed” sites on this list are using Twitter Bootstrap? I find it remarkable that these people paid all this money for a design that just used a common, free to use, UI kit, as well as responsive. Good on ya Utah.

  • AntoxaGray

    It’s fun to see that centrat and west states have better sites than east states.

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