I don't often take advice from fashion designers. My closet full of jeans and cardigans is a testament to that. But I've always appreciated Coco Chanel's rule that, before you leave the house, you should look in the mirror and remove one accessory. It shows there's almost always an opportunity to simplify.
This is advice that should be taken to heart by anybody responsible for creating and maintaining websites, which are often overloaded with content and features that aren't strictly necessary and damage the big picture. When your site becomes bigger and more complicated than it needs to be, this can be a real problem for your company.
Why Does Bloat Happen?
Bloat happens when an organization tries to cram so much onto their website that the most important parts get lost - when it has many different stakeholders who each want a piece of the site. It's easier for the web designer to tell these people yes than to tell them no - especially when these people sign her paycheck.
It can also happen when organizations try to jump on a trend, whether it's Flash animations, video, or social widgets. They see other companies using these tools and feel like they need to put them on their site, too, to keep up.
The thinking that often guides these organizations is that if some people might be interested in a feature - even if it's only a few people - then it doesn't hurt to include it. After all, anybody who isn't interested can just ignore it. But that's a dangerous way of thinking.
How Bloat Hurts Your Business
The problem is that people can't just tune out anything they're not interested in. We have to process it on some level, even if it's just to decide if we'll give it more attention or not. And we all have a limited amount of attention we can give.
Studies have shown that when consumers are presented with too many choices in products, they tend to freeze and choose nothing. A similar thing can happen when presented with too many choices on a website. If a user can't quickly pick out which area they ought to focus on and which link to follow, they may abandon the site altogether.
Even before you get a user to your website, you have to overcome all the other demands on their attention: their ringing telephone, Twitter notifications, looming deadlines, screaming children, etc. If you've managed to get past all that, why would you even give them the chance to ignore you?
After its recent merger with Continental Airlines, United abandoned its simpler website and adopted the Continental website. The resulting site is a classic example of bloat, with at least 11 different content blocks on the home page (not counting header and navigation). When you first visit the page, you have no idea which block contains the most important information and where you should direct your attention.
Contrast this with the Delta home page, which presents you with one main option - buying airplane tickets. Other content is available on the site, but it's not all clamoring for your attention at once. This makes it much more likely that visitors will actually carry through with buying tickets.
Attention is a limited resource - and so is bandwidth. A recent New York Times article about impatient web users stated "People will visit a Web site less often if it is slower than a close competitor by more than 250 milliseconds." The more videos, Flash animations, jQuery effects, and ads you include on your site, the longer it will take to load. It will take even longer to load on a phone or tablet. And if it takes too long, you'll lose a potential customer.
How Can You Fight Bloat?
IBM recently redesigned one of its landing pages, reducing the clutter on the page dramatically. This increased its click-through rate by 904 percent and the number of site registrations by 1,475 percent. By making a similar effort on your site, you can increase the effectiveness of your website and reach your own digital goals.
First, figure out what the main purpose of your site is. For an airline, it may be selling plane tickets. For a software company, it may be selling software. For a nonprofit, it may be getting donations. Revisit these goals throughout the development process to make sure everything you're doing serves these goals.
Bloat is not a problem limited to home pages. Across your entire site, you should consider how essential each piece of content is, and if it is helping your users or just getting in their way. This process extends to other areas of your digital strategy. Remember, every email, every tweet, and every Facebook post you create uses up part of your audience's limited attention.
This is not an easy process. It requires you to make tough choices and to talk to your users and understand what they want from your site. Throwing everything and the kitchen sink on your site is the lazy way out, and it won't give you the best results.
The drive to simplicity has to come from business leaders. They are often the only ones who can decide to do what's best for the business as a whole, over what's best for each internal stakeholder. Web designers will have a hard time winning this group over with arguments for simplicity based on its aesthetic merits. But an argument based on the business benefits may carry the day.
This column was originally published on March 14, 2012.
Sarah has long been intrigued by the challenge of how to translate complex concepts, particularly scientific and technical information, into plain language that everyone can understand.
As a writer at Carnegie Mellon University and Polytechnic Institute of New York University, Sarah developed communications that explained the universities’ research in clear, engaging language. Most recently, she honed her online information design and web writing skills as web services manager for The Segal Company.
Sarah holds an M.A. in professional writing from Carnegie Mellon University and a B.A. in English from Oberlin College. She currently lives in Brooklyn under the reign of a French bulldog.
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