Traffic Jam on the Information Super-Highway

September 8th, 2010

First of all, when is the last time you’ve heard the internet referred to as the “information super-highway”? It’s really quite a dumb phrase, but it was at least somewhat accurate for a while. Recently though, I’ve noticed that the tool we once imagined would be a streamlined source of important international information has become a giant cluster of inane snippets and desperate attempts at grabbing attention.

I’ve been struggling with this overabundance of features at work lately, where I’m continually asked to add yet another widget/ad/photo gallery/video player/news story to an already overcrowded page. The fear with each design is that it will become lost on the page, which is inevitable when a page features nearly 4 dozen different items to look at. The other point to consider is that even if the new addition does successfully grab the user, it’s just going to detract user attention from other features on the page, features I probably spent last month trying to make stand out.

So, what’s wrong with a busy page? A lot, a lot is wrong. For each hour spent creating a new feature for a site, there’s an hour not being spent maintaining or improving an existing feature. Each feature added to a site is yet another feature to maintain, support, and redesign in the future. And most importantly, each new feature doesn’t necessarily mean a new website user. In fact, it most often means the same amount of users on the site, but just one less user of another area of the site. Essentially, a website with too many concepts divides its own customer base, becomes impossible to maintain, and is doomed to eventual failure.

But all the cool kids like videos, and photos, and polls, and blogs, and news stories, and Facebook, and Twitter, and Flicker, right? Yes, that’s what all the cool kids are doing, but you’re insane to try to actually use them all. As a moderate Facebook user, a fairly new Twitter user,  a daily reader of news sites, a blogger, and the webmaster for a few different sites, I could honestly waste as much as 8 hours a day doing essentially fruitless online activities every day. But I don’t. And if I did, I would have no time for work. And without work, I’d have no money, and with no money, your business really shouldn’t care about me.

Yet, businesses are pouring immense amounts of time and resources into pumping dozens of daily tweets to various market segments, into adding hundreds of photos to Facebook, and into blogging on a daily basis. I currently only follow 18 users on Twitter, and I’m already completely inundated with meaningless updates. I get it, AJ Bombers, you have burgers and want people to eat them, but the 10-15 tweets a day is a bit much. It’s actually getting to the point where the logo and business name actually gets me a bit angry. A simple daily specials update, or tweets about menu changes when they happen would actually serve the customer well, but when every unimportant bit of information is shared, the actually important messages are going to get lost.

Well, what’s a business to do to keep up with this crazy pace? Slow down, simplify, think before you act. While it’s true that the online world moves fast and you don’t want to be the last person on the train, you also don’t always need to be the first. Take the time to fully understand what you want your site to do, who you want to use it, and how you want them to use it before adding a new feature. Don’t over-complicate or over-saturate your message. Keep it simple and make it resonate. Most importantly, understand what you’re doing before you do it. Don’t add a service because you think it would be a good idea, add a service when you are rightfully convinced it will serve you well.

Webmasters, content producers, designers, developers, and marketing personnel, let’s clean up or act a bit and start acting like distinguished lecturers of important theories instead of hobos with sandwich boards shouting on street corners.