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Monday, 4 March 2013

Hubristic web design

When I view a website I do it through a lens called AdBlock. It's a web browser add-on which automatically blocks almost all web advertising, thus making web browsing bearable.

Adblock is also able to identify every element in a website, thus allowing me to block things like hyper-irritating, corner-vision, flashing gifs. For almost every website I regularly visit I have used this feature to block at least one element.

Why run AdBlock? It's not some aversion to advertising, it's because, like most people in the actual, non Apple Store fetishist world, my broadband isn't that fast and is too regularly stuffed and my computer kit isn't that fabulous either.

Fact is that the real reason I use Adblock is because many websites are becoming as cluttered as Victorian living rooms. Weighed down with 'stuff' which is relevant to them but irrelevant to their users. And not only irrelevant but irritating.

The absolute worst example of this I have ever seen is on a website (disclosure, I have written for) called care2.com. A huge site, though not huge PR wise, that would be change.org (org = sic). It runs adverts as the background image on pages. This means that if you accidentally click on the background, which is pretty easy to do, you get automatically sent off to a 'sponsor' page. Surely a 'how to piss off users' 101?

And Think Progress. Your liberal audience may be well be hippys but at some point a bomb will be thrown if you persist in throwing up Rep. Keith Ellison-endorsed pop-up to 'encourage' people to sign-up for f**king emails. Dontchaknow pop-ups are prescribed in Xstian doctrine? Using them is like licking Beelzebub's anus.


To digress a little ... A heavy and, if I preen so myself, like to think savvy Net user like meself using geek-fab tech like AdBlock is atypical and most menches obviously don't block ads. Things like Care2's gauche attempt to generate revenue often pass me by, so when circumstance causes me to see what 99% of users do see it's practically a vision from hell, a glimpse of a dystopic, always on, Net-implant IN YOUR EYES, future. When Hollywood does 'da techno future' it rarely shows what today's websites actually portent, which is commerce doing its level best to adopt the US Transport Safety Administration's position and casually forget the chocolates and champagne and just show five fingers roughly up your ass just because.

Cheezberger diet design

There's another add-on you can get which tells you the size of a webpage and tell you where all the stuff in it is actually arriving from. Cluttered websites invariably have content actually arriving from a stack of other sources (apart from advertising agencies) and have elements, like video or the photo montages peeps like Huffington Post love which help them by boosting clicks and ad displays and which blow out page size and load times.

Many American websites are particularly bad (I think bad, why bad? keep reading) on the obesity score. Hello big-click, I-click, ace media logging website Mediate. Content good but sick as in sickness from the ba-looooat. One example of one too many cheezburgers.

Yet American broadband is well known to be, hear them bitch, well, shite. Americans must, en masse, be spending time waiting for this shite to load. And this normality is a world beating economy?

There are some laws in this world, like gravity, or Moore's law on processing power, which hold true however technically or scientifically advanced we might think we are. Basics around the web (example: uncalled for flashing gifs f**k people right off) are one of them and one of my heroes, usability guru Jakob Nielsen, has been saying them since the 90s about websites.

Reality is that most people still come to websites to read some plain old boring text. But even if they come to view video or view images they're still 'task oriented' and the more crap you throw at them whilst they're trying to do what they came to your website to do the more, in the end, they'll discount your product if someone else gives it to them in a better package.

To someone like me it's kind-of hilarious, almost a parody, to see sites like Huffington Post have the four paragraphs of text you have come to read surrounded by masses - masses upon masses - of irrelevant BS. On the other sad hand, it is also very sad,sad, sad to see websites like the Guardian (sob) get more and more bloated with irrelevant BS. Bloat seems like some kind of virus affecting desperate monetisers.

I just dug out from my bookmarks one effort countering web design hubris which is a text-only version of Slate. Have a look. Do you, a user wanting dem Slate pearls, lose anything at all reading that rather than Slate's mass market version (and Slate™ is actually a slightly less hubristically designed website than most).

Now there are some websites which buck this trend. The design of mega-blogger Andrew Sullivan's new website is excellent. It is immensely simple, even delightful, yet achieves precisely what it needs to. I believe it has been enthusiastically received by its readers.

Another site which (yeah, viewed via AdBlock) which bucks IMO is the rapidly popular Buzzfeed.

The BBC generally gets it right too, probably driven by its built-in public-service and 'serve all users' ethos but more crucially by its 'user testing drives design' culture, which has been embedded for years. I don't know fercertain but I can tell as a constant user that the BBC's attitude is anti-'kitchen sink'; meaning that if they are going to chuck in any new element they will first draw up a balance sheet and then they will test and test and test whether or not it works for common people. Yeah, they don't have to monetise but I would bet the beeb's global audience will be retained despite competition in years ago because their corporate web design ethos is better rooted than most.

A Calvinist plea to MOTUs

The big websites and their bloated design, all gaining users just on general internet use growth - so the only way is up? right? been, worn teeshirt, can I sell you a Tulip bulb?- reminds me of the sort of hubris last seen during the dotcom boom, which I lived and worked through. Who is to say that these corpulent sites might not go the way of Altavista or AOL? 'Even Google won't be around for ever, let alone Facebook', as John Naughton put it in The Observer.

Remember the turn-of-the-century dotcom boom? I do. Sigh. I can recall, whilst working for a big publisher, having pointless (it turned out) arguments with a big web design company proposing flash (Flash as in the Adobe plug-in) driven sites and complex designs which looked great on - literal - paper whilst nearly all Brits were still on dial-up internet access. Expensive projects, as it turned out. Profitable, natch, doh, for them. Zat waz the whole point ... I can still picture one Yank wise-guy pitcher practically have paper design sex with our female executive whilst ignoring that annoying 'anti-capitalist' buzzing in the room (i.e. moi) yelping 'can we test this?'

The dotcom boom era's 'emperor's new clothes' hubris is best represented by the infamous boo.com, a Flash driven fashion store which only a small percentage of possible customers in the year 2000 could possibly load and which was near impossible to navigate. Yet it burned through $135m of Monopoly money from the supposed 'Masters of the Universe'.

boo.com should be better remembered now than it appears to be. Maybe it's forgotten because capitalism doesn't do, cannot do, memory?

Fact is that most of the audience for big websites do not live in South Korea, where massive public investment has delivered super fast internet access to the masses. Apart from the Koreans, only a few gay porn stars are sitting on a 'fat pipe'. I would bet that a huge percentage of the users of a the world's online information and entertainment sources find the design they're forced to deal with blimpish and frustrating and irrelevant to their needs.

#Fail. And, yeah, #fail for El Gordo Capitalismo ...
Sulphuric
Worst offenders (personal experience)
  • Huffington Post
  • Mediate
  • Google News (embedded promo video)
  • Daily Mail's endless pages with too many photos and videos
  • Facebook

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