Information Pollution is, as you can easily imagine, contamination of the core meaning of a piece of information with any form of distraction (like redundant, unsolicited, irrelevant, unclear or low-value pollutants).
Jakob Nielsen, the computer interface usability guru, popularized this concept beginning around 2003 (though the idea certainly had been floating around before
that), and designers, editors and communication professionals have been talking about it extensively since then.
Sometimes, Information Pollution takes the form of poor writing or obtuse messages. Today, though, let’s talk about Information Pollution in web interface design.
The Orange County Register Online
Specifically, consider the Orange County Register, the main newspaper of Orange County California. I love newspapers in general and have a particular affinity for my local papers. So, I have conflicting emotions about writing this blog.
However, as with any dysfunctional loved-one, it’s never healthy to be an enabler. While you definitely cannot make a convincing case that it’s the poor interface design that is killing the newspaper industry, writing about that poor design seems just cruel at this point, given how newspapers are crashing all around the country.
On the other hand, a massive redesign at this moment could not only save the OC Register money, but also launch the company in a bold new direction, and perhaps help save the value of the INFORMATION behind the reporting they do.
And, by the way, when I say “redesign,” I mean slash-and-burn redesign… but more about that later.
The current web design at the OC Register is way out of hand–so polluted that I largely avoid clicking on any links to it, no matter how interesting the content sounds to me! (Those are words that should make a newspaper publisher sob like an orphan in a wicker basket, left on a doorstep, in a cold rain, hungry, with diaper rash.)
The OC Reg. interface is Keith-Richards-like polluted with ads, links to other articles, and unnecessary garbage (some of the bulkiest footers I’ve seen).
Consider this: when clicking a Twitter link to an OC Register article, when the page finally finishes loading, the actual content of the article occupies less than 15% of the screen space… on the bottom left.
Plus, after reading through the article (the Information), the sidebars are still so bloated with crap that I’m forced to roll the scrolling ball on my mouse a full SIX more full cycles before finding that fat-bottom footer. That’s six screens of empty white space where the content is supposed to be, and six screens of foul sidebars listing all manner of flabby drivel.
Why so much pointless scrolling? Because of the Information Pollution.
It’s repulsive and abusive.
Repulsive because it’s visually cluttered, incoherent, graceless, garish and foul… as if a garbage truck backed up across the beach and off loaded its haul into the ocean right in front of me and my precious Turkish cotton beach towel.
Abusive because the OC Register deems it more important to seek maximum advertising dollars from every inch of screen real estate, than to serve my needs as the consumer of its information. The design literally chases my eyes and attention to the bottom left where the core value of the information has been banished.
I pay for seeking information from the OC Register by having my attention, focus and quiet enjoyment interrupted and assaulted by a massive amount of Information Pollution that is utterly irrelevant to the information inherent in the articles.
The advertising and desperate shilling to get me to spend more time on the site (and therefore ring their advertising cash register more) are taking a huge, steaming dump on the value of the reporting.
Here is what that model engenders in me… I want to scream at the screen: How stupid do you think we are? Do you really think we’re willing to tolerate massively slow server loads, a 85% attention surcharge, and all the charm of a neon carnival house of mirrors with vomit on the floor atmosphere in order to read even a promising piece of journalism?
The real and true value of the journalism in the OC Register has been contaminated and exploited beyond repair.
By the way, nothing about this rant is unique to the OC Register. Most newspapers are in the same boat. They feel compelled to monetize their web presence. Just like every other business in the world, they’re trying to figure out how to make money on this interweb thing. As is my want, I’m dodging the difficult questions, however, as they are not the subject of this blog–much smarter people than I grapple with those questions much better elsewhere.
Diligent, Responsible Design
The OC Register has done an excellent job of following the advice of very resourceful and diligent researchers who have assembled some best practices for making online ads more clickable, using cool research techniques like eye tracking and heat maps.
- “Ads that blend into the look and feel of the page — especially text ads — draw more eyes.”
- “Ads inset within article text are seen more than most other ads.”
- “In-text placement may not give you the most intense user engagement with an ad; sheer size appears to perform better in this regard.”
There is a fundamental problem, though. I feel assaulted by a publication I want to read. I value the information, but I’m being asked to pay too high a price to get to that information.
There, OC Register, you’ve successfully chased me away.
Seek a Loss Advantage Instead
The OC Register should have the readers interests in mind. They should minimize the loss of my attention as a reader when providing their valuable information.
Umair Haque, one of my favorite current new media thinker/speaker/keynoter/presenter type smartypants, calls this “loss advantage.”
Some companies seek a cost advantage over competitors (my stuff is cheaper than theirs). However, there is good reason for companies to now seek a “loss advantage,” or in other words, seek to “minimize the loss to my customers of ad clutter, ad creep, info pollution.”
Case in point: Google’s main search page is plain and simple–always has been. Can you imagine the revenue they could generate by putting even just one banner ad on the main Google search page? Think about it. Massive revenue.
They have resisted that move… they have done a heretical thing that might cost a CEO a job in many companies: they “left money on the table.”
But what Google did was serve the interests of its users–minimize the loss of my attention.
This works. Pay attention, OC Register. Ask yourself how you could change your perspective with this idea in mind.
This idea of a “loss advantage” is difficult to explain, and while this post is not a particularly good explanation, if you’re anything like me, you can acknowledge the merit in the idea even before grasping it fully.
My question to the OC Register: Are you willing to make a dramatic change?
Because I’m a guy who loves visuals and loves symbolism, I’m suggesting that a slash-and-burn, immediate redesign of your website could symbolize a new direction based on new ideals that have a chance at least of surviving.
And to anyone reading this blog: how would you suggest structuring the website of a major urban newspaper?