Are in-post links and pagination causing a lack of concentration?

As more and more information is being proliferated and consumed over the Web, it seems that our attention spans have taken a hit. I recently came across some interesting musings by Newfangled’s Chris Butler on the subject:

In a recent WIRED article summarizing some points from his book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr argues that hyperlinks may actually disrupt concentration and weaken comprehension—effectively hindering our ability to engage in “deep reading.” When I read this last week, it immediately struck me as true—I know that the more links I encounter in an article, the more likely I am to feel overwhelmed with options that I am inclined to follow up upon.

While I won’t paraphrase my entire comment on this blog (if you scroll down, mine is the first comment), one of the things that I can say from my own experience (and those of several posts I’ve read recently about time management and maintaining productivity) is that yes, links are distracting. Very distracting.

To people like us, who love to absorb information and learn new things, a couple of reference links within a short blog post can easily turn into a half hour of reading a bunch of different stuff on a topic that has no relation to what you’re immediately doing. In my own life, I’ve noticed that this tendency causes me to work late into some evenings just to finish up the work that I had to get done that day.

Here’s the thing: information is valuable. It is. It’s important to learn new things and stay on top of what you’re doing. But the time we spend clicking on all of these links and reading this interesting stuff? It’s not billable. And as the creators of this content, it’s important for us to respect this fact and enable our readers to absorb the information we have for them, not send them off in a million different directions because someone on Twitter thought that our post was cool.

I don’t know that there’s an immediate solution to this. Chris mentions a couple of good suggestions, and I have a few thoughts that I’ll be implementing in the zen kitchen‘s website sometime soonish, but at the very least, it’s something to think about.

Web Design: getting down to what’s really important

Over the last few years, I’ve woken up almost every day with insane neck pain. I’ve tried a bunch of different solutions for this: yoga, chiropractic, massage, and so many new pillows (some quite expensive) that my fiancé Nick frequently jokes about my “pillow quiver” – the two Tempurpedic pillows that I switch through every night depending on what position I’m in.

For those who don’t remember the Sobikawa pillow, it is a Japanese pillow that is filled with buckwheat husks. The idea is similar to memory foam, but with one key exception: the husks actually conform to your shape and stay there, making sure that your neck is completely in alignment all night. I had one years ago that I’d bought for $20 at a Walgreens, and I always regretted getting rid of it. But apparently, you can still get them pretty cheaply at target.com.

Cost: around $50, including shipping and tax. Result? The best week of sleep I’ve had in years, and while my neck still has some tightness, the pain that I used to wake up with has already started to go away. The super-expensive Tempurpedic pillows that I’ve been sleeping on for the last couple of years are now sitting in a closet. This simple pillow, filled with organic stuff that would have been thrown away anyway, was what I needed all along.

This experience exemplifies an important component of good design. Sometimes when we decide that we need a new marketing campaign, website, etc. it’s very easy to get caught up in the technology, or in the physical components that we’re looking to create. But often, when this happens, we lose sight of the most important goal of truly effective design: solving a specific business problem.

I see this most frequently in website RFPs. The RFP will list a wide array of technical features that the client wants on the site, but it won’t mention anything about the reason those features are important to them, or what the site itself is meant to accomplish. When we speak with the client contact prior to crafting the proposal (we don’t answer RFPs without having at least one conversation with the client contact to confirm goals and scope), you often find that the client doesn’t actually have a specific reason for that feature; they included it because they thought it was interesting, or because their competitors are using something similar.

For any design project to actually do the work you want it to, it has to start by identifying the real problem that you’re trying to solve. It’s extremely rare that your problem is not having enough technical whiz-bangery or Flash on your site. Much more often, the problem comes down to this:

your website doesn’t communicate your brand in a way that is meaningful and authentic to the people you want to connect with.

That’s it. That’s all. Really.

This is why things like user experience, audience testing and discovery are such a large part of good website design. It’s also why, if you haven’t taken the time to properly think through what you genuinely provide for your customers and craft a brand that properly reflects that, it’s useless to worry about creating a website.

Unless you can approach your project with this level of awareness around who your customers really are, and what they really want/need to hear from you, interactivity and fancy widgets become nothing more than meaningless decoration. Extremely expensive meaningless decoration. Fancy pillows gathering dust in a closet.

Does this mean that you shouldn’t add interactivity or technical features to your site? Not at all. 

But every feature on your site, just like every image, shape, type or color choice in a printed piece, must be there for a specific reason.

It must serve a specific need that your customers have. And, most importantly, it must be presented in a way that inspires trust, confidence and an interest in exploring further.

This is the benefit of iterative design, and of open source systems such as Drupal that allow you to evolve your site as your customers’ needs evolve. These approaches allow you to do something very important: start simple. Figure out the basics. Who are your customers? What do they get from you that they can’t get elsewhere? What is their reason for being at your site? What do they need to accomplish there?

For most businesses, there are certain common things that users need. They need a phone number where they can contact someone if they have a question, or if something goes horribly wrong. They need to get a quick overview of what you do, and how it might benefit them. If you’re a retailer, they need to know that they can find what they want at your site easily, they need to trust that their credit card information is safe in your hands, and they need to feel that they’re buying something from a business that is credible. For a food company, they need to know where they can buy your product in their local store, or how to get it for their store, and it would be great if they could buy it online. More importantly, they need to be able to imagine what the product actually tastes like, and that imagining should make them want to try it enough to add it to their cart.

In both of these cases, the last need is the most important. And unfortunately, it’s the one that’s most often overlooked in favor of the technology required to meet the first few needs.

The TUT Redesign: A great example of how technology and design can feed the brand.

I've been a fan of Mike Dooley's Notes from the Universe newsletter for a couple of years now. A couple of times a week, Mike (who refers to himself as TUT, or The Universal Truth) sends a quick, helpful affirmation that reminds you that the Universe has your back, and you know what you're doing. It's one of the few newsletters I look forward to and read every time it comes no matter what - in part because it's mercifully short, but also because it brings an enormous smile to my week every time I read it.
Recently, the Tut site (formerly very plain and just really a link to the newsletter, if I recall) was completely revamped and presented as Tut's Adventurer's Club, an intensive and FREE (if you're signed up for the newsletter) resource for subscribers which allows folks to keep track of long term goals, post bits of gratitude and affirmation in short Twitter-like bursts, and even create your own vision board!
Mind you, if you aren't familiar with or fond of The Secret, or the idea that Thoughts Become Things (which is the name of Dooley's movie, and a fairly commonly held belief among yogis), this will likely not be your thing. But as an exercise in creating technology to support a brand, the design of this new site is inspired. While there are certain things about the aesthetic that could be fine-tuned (the navigation is a bit blocky, and the cherry blossom in the header looks horribly out of place), the overall vibe works very well for the audience it's after: folks who are familiar with and attuned to the Law of Attraction, vision boards, holistic therapies, self-help and the like and want support for putting it to work in their lives.
Another great thing about the site is the copy - it's concise, friendly, pithy and most of all, welcoming. All of this supports the primary idea that the site represents - that the Universe is there with you, for you, supporting you. The site also integrates with Facebook, allowing you to post random nuggets of gratitude to your Facebook friends (obviously, you can choose not to do this if you prefer to keep your posts a bit more formalized), and the vision board feature is just fun to work with. You click on whatever photos you want to work with from the sidebar, and once they're added to the board, you can drag and drop them as you want to to create your vision board and save it to your profile. Creating goals is similarly easy; just add them to the cute little notepad, and then you can check them off once you've accomplished them. There's even a section that shows you all the things that you've accomplished!
Now, the question, of course, is does a site really need all these bells and whistles? Not often, no. But for the community that Dooley's looking to create, and the brand that he's established, the bells and whistles work together beautifully to create a user experience that's supportive, inspiring, and just plain fun.
Posted via email from Thinking Out Loud