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FutureNow Article
Tuesday, Jun. 24, 2008

Information Overload: Why Less is the New More

By Brendan Regan
June 24th, 2008

information overload image from broox at flickrA new report entitled Information Overload: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us was written up recently in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Commissioned by Basex, it details how information overload, particularly task interruptions, costs the Enterprise $650 billion a year in lost productivity.

That’s a very large price to pay for having everything at our fingertips, all the time, in any format.

Our decision-making processes can’t always keep up with our choices. The same challenge applies to website design and content. The Web is a fantastic place to shop, research, and be entertained, but sometimes when I’m online, I notice physical fatigue when I’m trying to figure out where to go next!

When I’m evaluating a vendor’s Services page, should I:

  • Sign up for their newsletter?
  • Read about the awards they’ve won?
  • Look at a list of clients?
  • Read the CEO’s blog?

When I’m shopping for a health supplement, should I:

  • Read about related products?
  • Read about their latest “green” program?
  • View my empty shopping cart?
  • Become an affiliate?

Even though we come to a website with the best intentions, we’re by nature drawn to the shiny distractions that marketers and designers put along our path. We go down rabbit holes in websites and sometimes by the time we find our way back to the trail, we’ve lost our momentum . . . or maybe we’ve been interrupted and have to go back to work ;)

So I’m wondering: How much money is lost each year because we overload our potential customers with information on our web pages? How many visitors are driven away by cluttered designs, too many messages, too many offers, and too many choices?

Here’s the problem:
Marketers naturally want to use messaging, offers, promotions and more to persuade web visitors. But in their efforts, they often contribute to information overload, which is proven to hamper the decision-making process. Also, companies tend to add more content to their websites over time and rarely retire content that’s outdated or irrelevant.

The solution: Most web pages should have only one primary goal. If there are alternate options, offers, or next steps, that’s fine. But don’t interrupt the task at hand, and don’t overload your visitors with distractions.

The one exception I can think of is the homepage, which should, at a minimum, a) communicate Unique Value Proposition, and b) route visitors.

Should you remove these secondary goals and choices? Maybe, but sometimes making them less prominent is enough to move the needle. It comes down to a business decision whether your “Sizzlin’ Hot Summer Giveaway” promotion is worth distracting a certain percentage of visitors from their primary goal.

What if you don’t know the goal of all of your site’s pages? You could start with rediscovering who your customers really are, or some analysis of your website’s “data dump,” or you could hypothesize and run some tests. Sometimes the purpose of a page is simply to present options. That’s fine, but don’t distract visitors from understanding their options and making a decision.

So let’s get practical here:

  • Category page primary goal = route visitors to sub-category or product page
  • Product page primary goal = persuade visitors to purchase
  • In the News page primary goal = build brand credibility
  • Shopping cart page primary goal = get the cash!
  • General content page primary goal = build persuasive momentum

Although it seems hard at first, it’s actually pretty easy to find a single, primary goal for most pages on your site. Then you have the harder task of deciding how to do away with unnecessary distractions, get rid of design clutter, and allow visitors freedom without information overload.

Sometimes having a new pair of eyes look at your site can really speed this process up.

If you’re overloading customers with info, you’re not alone. Many world-class, million-dollar sites are guilty of information overload, and even the best online marketers need to work on it constantly.

Best of luck. To avoid information overload, let’s focus on answering the three essential questions of Persuasion Architecture:

  • Who are your visitors?
  • What action do you want them to take?
  • What will persuade them to take that action?

. . .

About the Author: Brendan Regan is a Persuasion Analyst at FutureNow, Inc. This is his first GrokDotCom post. Welcome to the blog, Brendan!

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Comments (15)

  1. Very true! It’s almost every website should have another link with: “to get to the point click here”. I rarely comment on blogs, however I enjoyed this article so much that when I saw that it is your first post, I figured you may want to know that it’s good stuff, lots of practical information in a short post. Your point exactly.

  2. Excellent article!

  3. And here’s a cartoon version of the same thing :)
    http://www.psychotactics.com/blog/?p=10

  4. This was a great post. Love the details and appropriateness of the message. Brendan is obviously a great addition to the FutureNow, Inc team! Good stuff!

  5. Good suggestions, Brendan. I would add that one of the ways to avoid creating a webpage that causes “information overload” is to include only the facts.

    Visitors really don’t want to read all the generic fluff often seen on corporate websites such as “We’re committed to quality” and “Our mission is to provide great service.” That’s all well and good, but how about telling us exactly how you ensure quality in your product, such as what materials you use and what processes make your product superior to the competitions. And for service, tell us about the specific steps you take to answer our questions and respond to any problems after the sale.

    The proof is in the details. The facts are far more persuasive than the typical corporate rhetoric. And even though including that data may result in more lengthy page content, it’s precisely the information your visitor needs to make an educated decision.

  6. I want an application that people can use to help rid their site from information overload by creating site maps. but I don’t think there really is one out there. There’s a few that I’ve seen, but they’re not that usable (In fact they have information overload)

  7. Thanks this is an excellent article and has given me a few ideas.

  8. I think we all could take a lesson from In-n-Out burger. They have like a grand total of 5 options to choose from. That’s it! Good and simple product = winning relationship between vendor and customer.

  9. Agree. We should only see what we want to achieve form a particular page and keep customer focused about what you want to achieve.

  10. It’s really easy to overload users with information. This is particularly tragic from a marketing side of things as users will be busy looking for info rather than taking the preferred buying action.

  11. @ Brendan

    Not sure who linked to it. Might have been bryan. This reminds me a great deal of the “nobody wants to read your s#%$”. Honestly that article changed the way I am doing write, people really don’t have the time we think they do. They just skim, if we are lucky!

  12. @ William

    Focus is a huge thing. Once you lose it, it is almost impossible to get back, most times they just click away. However, if you keep their focus, you can guide it wherever you want on your site!

  13. Love the details and appropriateness of the message. Brendan is obviously a great addition to the FutureNow, Inc team! Good stuff!

  14. Great point about In-N-Out Burger. It’s the quality, not the quantity we should focus on. Our customer will then do the same.

  15. This is so true. I was also just reading a blog concerning the web media, and how quantity also trumps quality in a lot of cases–in terms of what is more common.

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