Clean, Clear & Concise: The Need for Simplicity in Website Design

Clarity, Conciseness, and Clean websites trump clutter

Every day millions of professionals turn to LinkedIn as their preferred source for articles about trending topics in business.

It’s easy to take this social media platform for granted, but prior to May 5, 2003, who (other than Reid Hoffman) could’ve imagined a world in which experts from every sector would freely share insights more valuable than money can buy?

I check in a few times each day to read the latest articles by the influencers I follow but there’s one factor that determines if I engage with the content or move on to read something else in my feed. I’m referring to excessive ad clutter.

Chronic Clutter

Articles hosted on LinkedIn don’t have this problem (thanks, Jeff Weiner!). Neither do most blogs, but the majority of major media company websites are chronically cluttered with ads.

I’m not referring to pop-up ads. Those are an obvious nuisance not worthy of another conversation. For the purpose of this article, I want to focus on the ad placements that confuse your eye so it doesn’t know where to land or what path to follow.

Ad clutter includes those massive banner ads that take about a third of the top of the screen. It also encompasses the glut of sidebar ads (large and small), footer ads, and sticky ads that litter what could have been an otherwise engaging piece of content.

I rarely stick around to read an article on one of these sites. And I know I’m not alone.

But it’s getting increasingly difficult to engage with content because nearly every major media company website contains serious ad clutter – including, but certainly not limited to, the following offenders (in alphabetical order):

  • MajorMediaBloomberg
  • Business Insider
  • CNET
  • CNN
  • Entrepreneur
  • Forbes
  • Fortune
  • The Guardian
  • Huffington Post
  • Inc.
  • LA Times
  • Newsweek

Consider the example below from The Guardian. Notice all of the chaos these ads create. Where is your eye supposed to land? What does this page want you to do?

  1. Download the new SEMrush Ranking Factors Study?
  2. Try Coke Zero Sugar?
  3. Make a Contribution to The Guardian?
  4. Subscribe to The Guardian?
  5. Navigate one of the 5 colorful menu options in the nav bar?

Guardian

This type of clutter often makes it impossible to focus on the content you’re there to engage with. Did you catch the irony that this is an exposé condemning a particular “brutal…ad placement”?

More Muddle

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to google “interrupting ads” to see which articles on this subject were themselves full of interrupting ads. Every one of the results was muddled with ad placements. A few of these examples are listed below.

I didn’t include any screenshots of the mobile experience. The interruptions were similar but distinct enough to require more attention than one article could cover.

As you scan through the examples below, notice the irony of each title and the number of cluttered ads competing for your eye’s attention.

Business Insider

BusinessInsider

Newsweek

Los Angeles Times

Entrepreneur

Inc.

CNN

Forbes

CNET (Is this BestBuy.com??? Nope)

Clean & Clear

For the last seven years, I’ve provided creative direction for ads, book covers, product packaging, merchandising solutions, websites, videos, and tradeshow booths. I’ve learned the hard way that clutter can kill even the best marketing concept.

The same is true for digital content. Even the best article can be ruined by distractions.

DontmakemethinkIn his bestselling book Don’t Make Me Think, Steve Krug teaches web designers the importance of a clean and clear hierarchy.

Our eyes need to immediately know where to land and where they are supposed to flow to next.

But ads SHOUT at us to click the CTA buttons above, beneath, or to the right of the article.

Those distractions interrupt our flow of thought, making it more difficult to focus and consume the content.

Design Dogma

2KDenmarkI recently worked on an extensive project with 2K/DENMARK, one of the world’s leading typeface foundries.

Co-founder, Klaus Krogh, and his talented team created 3 exclusive new typefaces for our publishing company and in the process of working with them, I learned a lot about the importance of laying out text in a way that guides the eye to “flow smoothly along the lines of typography” (thanks, Heidi Rand Sorensen!).

There’s a real science to typeface design. For maximum readability, there’s an ideal number of characters per column but it varies depending on the font style and size. I also learned that a precise amount of white space within letters and between letters are needed to naturally guide the eye to flow at the right cadence.

The biggest surprise to me was that the way a page is laid out affects not only how easy it is to read but it also affects how easy it is to understand. The design affects the “cognitive workload of the reader” (thanks, Johannes Krejberg Haahr!).

To put it another way, the layout of a web page impacts our ability to understand and process what we’re reading. If it is clean and uncluttered, it’s not only more enjoyable to read, it is also more understandable.

This explains why so many people bounce from sites that are cluttered with ads and gravitate to ones that are clean and clear.

Practical Points

I take it you don’t own one of these major media companies so what can we do about all this? I’ll leave you with four quick points of application. I’ll give a very brief answer containing my opinion but I invite you to leave a comment to share your thoughts as well.

Why are these ad placements so common on major media company websites?

  • Because advertisers are still willing to pay for these spots and the media companies need to monetize their sites.

Note: Some marketers secure ad placements without walking through the User Experience themselves. The reports come back with huge impressions and that keeps them interested in more placements. This is where Customer Journey Mapping can be beneficial – it equips you to walk through the experience of most, if not all, of your ads so you can identify which ones engage customers and which should be cut from future campaigns.

Should these ad placements be in a marketer’s advertising playbook?

  • Probably not. There may be a case where it makes sense but I recommend finding other strategies that are more engaging and less intrusive.

Should LinkedIn Influencers agree to contribute to these sites?

  • Sure. Although the format is distracting, it is still a valid opportunity to build your brand, establish credibility, and increase your link-building strategy.

Should you share or link to these articles?

  • Yes, if the content is valuable and highly sharable but, when appropriate, consider adding a disclaimer.

Follow Facebook

To sum up this article, customer engagement is hindered by websites that are plagued with ad clutter. But is there hope that things will improve on these major media sites? I believe so.

If enough marketers start tracking their engagement metrics more closely, they will pull those ad placements from their playbook. And when that happens, these major media companies will be forced to find a way to monetize their site in ways that are more engaging for readers and more profitable for advertisers.

Facebook News FeedThat’s what Facebook is up to. Mark Zuckerberg’s recent announcement about changes to the News Feed is the result of a company that looks closely at the engagement metrics and is willing to pull an ad category when their users don’t engage with it.

This will eventually happen with major media company sites but until then, I’m trying to train myself to check the domain first before clicking on an article shared via LinkedIn.

For more about how Journey Mapping impacts the Customer Experience and the Employee Experience, please subscribe to my blog.

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