A Motive For Bad Design

Browse around some content sites on the web—magazines, blogs, news sites—and you’ll quickly notice a lot of bad design. Bad design in the sense that the page isn’t working on making things easy to read for you as the visitor, but instead seems to be pushing ads and links in your face, making for a cluttered and confusing experience.

Don’t these people understand anything about usability? Don’t they want to simplify their page a little to make their own content easy and pleasant to read? Do they even like their own site? The answer of course is yes—they know very well what they’re doing, because each element on the page is there for a reason.

See ads on the page? Chances are the publisher gets paid by the pageviews—maybe not directly, but the volume of traffic is what dictates the price of the ads. This means that to make money they have to get you to visit as many pages as possible on their site. Doesn’t matter what you do on the page, they can’t track that effectively yet, all that matters is that the ads load.

This creates a tension between you and the publisher since the motivations for your visit differ. You’re there because you want to learn, be informed, or be entertained. The publisher wants you there because they’re making money for having you there. They make even more money when you browse more of their pages, loading more ads in the process. Their primary motive is not to teach, inform, or entertain because the visitors are not paying them for that service. Indeed, the visitors are not even the customers—the real customers are the advertisers who are purchasing eyeballs by the thousand.

This means that the publisher wants you to click around. The sites are designed for this. The clutter bombards the visitor with links to click on, confusing and pulling them in different directions. Ads are placed right inside the content, just below the headline, trying to grab your attention by force. Related article links are presented to you right when you’ve finished reading something, pushing you to read something else. All around the page are even more links and ads, asking you to click them, as if the article you’re on isn’t worth your time (and it probably isn’t).

Recently, services like Readability and Safari’s Reader have appeared to make cluttered pages easier to read. For these services the “customer” is the reader, so their focus is on making pages more usable and not giving advertisers their share of the traffic. They’re a natural reaction to the blind focus on pageviews that some sites today have.

And that’s just the problem: if the publisher really wanted to teach or inform, then they wouldn’t need all those links and ads around the page. The article would be the primary focus, and after the reader finished reading they should not be compelled to read something else, they should be compelled to go away and reflect on what they’ve learned and put it to use.

Some publishers might say: “But wait, our visitors don’t pay us anything. We can’t be expected to produce content for free, so we use advertising to cover the costs. We can strike a balance between ads and content to deliver a good experience to the readers.” Yes—but what is your motivation for running the site? Do you want to make money or do you want to teach, inform or entertain? You can’t have a motivation that lies in-between. You can make money teaching, but your motivation would either be: teach to make money or make money by teaching. On the web, you cannot make money teaching unless you charge for it because ads don’t teach.

So you either focus on one thing and do it well enough to charge for it, or you focus on the advertising money and plaster your site with ads and links to boost those pageviews. The tension in motivations ensures that sites getting their revenue through advertising will have cluttered designs because they don’t care about you or their content—they only care about maximizing pageviews, and that means always leaving you unsatisfied and wanting more. Each page on those sites becomes completely disposable, unable to stand up on its own and easily replaced by another, and another, and another—all cheap boards to stick ads on.

This very site has that problem as well, to a lesser extent. The sidebar has some ads and a bunch of links to other articles, even other sites' articles. I’m going to simplify this further and probably consolidate the ads into one single banner. I no longer care about pageviews like I once did when I started blogging. It’s a mindless statistic that ultimately doesn’t benefit the readers or myself. The focus of a blog should be either to teach, inform or entertain others, or to learn yourself, and both of these things are much more valuable than the pennies you get paid for cluttering your pages with ads.

author picture Written by Dmitry Fadeyev
Published on September 22, 2010