How Clean Design Enhances Attention

I’ve agonized over building my own websites, only to come up with horrible designs. When it came to picking a WordPress theme for this blog, I understood something I didn’t quite get as an inexperienced designer: the more shit you cram onto a page, the more distracted your readers will be. I didn’t fully appreciate this until I bought a tablet, because the tablet provides a better environment for immersive reading than a PC ever has. For this reason, I chose a responsive design that has one column, focused on content, when reading from a mobile device. It’s a completely different reading experience compared to a desktop. Today I’m going to focus on how cleanly designed mobile apps have rescued deep reading.

I found this grumpy-codger thinkpiece about how the Internet is destroying our attention. Keep in mind it was written in 2008, when the desktop was still king. However, it does have a point: the typical web browsing experience is attention draining. Most sites crowd their pages with flashing ads and links upon links upon links directing you to other content. Then the iPad was launched, and a million tablets and e-readers followed—to rescue the novel, the “longread” article, and our sanity. I have read more novels in e-reader apps in the past two years than I’d read at all in the past decade. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have tackled all 1500+ pages of The Count of Monte Cristo during a week-long vacation if I’d had to lug around such a thick and heavy tome. Project Gutenberg has made it easy to catch up on the classics with the push of a button. I’ve also filled my Kindle app with tons of contemporary fiction. I am never without something to read (so long as I charge my tablet every day).

The simplicity of some tablet reader apps has also made reading articles easier than it’s ever been, even compared to a physical magazine. There’s elegance in the friction tablets impose when it comes to multitasking, and users are skeptical about potential split-screen functionality being added in the near future. It’s why I’ve come to hate more than one column in tablet page design. It’s difficult to read the content when it’s reduced to half the screen: the text is smaller, there’s less of it, and there’s more distracting bullshit around the edges. This is why I hate those magazine-like responsive designs where you get a teeny-tiny column of content, and the other half of the page is dedicated to ads, specifically designed to make you accidentally touch them because they’re always on the right side where you need to stick your thumb to flip to the next page to continue reading as the content is lightly drizzled like chocolate syrup over a big shit sundae.

Tablet reading had a rocky start, as all new technology does, because too many people didn’t have a clue what to do with it. The first sin in formatting digital content is to have the same inflexibility as print. I remember downloading an epub version of the Neil Gaiman/Dave McKean comic Signal to Noise (from the first Humble Bundle), and the text couldn’t be resized so you could actually read it. Ironic, given the title. When I tried out the National Geographic app, it annoyed me right off the bat with not being able to flip it to portrait-mode. That is pure-strain bullshit, and anyone making a mobile app needs to have flexible design, dummy hammered into their brains until the message smashes through their thick skulls.

The second sin is cramming in stupid shiny features no one really asked for. Dear Nat Geo, I don’t want to be greeted by a lame animation of how you put the cover photo together when I open your digital magazine, which plays every time you tap the image, and distracts a first-time user from figuring out that you need to flip your finger sideways to reach the table of contents. In fact, I don’t want to see your cover at all. Just start me off with the table of contents and I’ll decide what’s worthy of my time. Also, formatting your digital magazine so you have to scroll up-and-down and side-to-side at the random whim of the designer is idiotic horseshit. Pick one and stick to it. Better yet, let the user pick flipping or scrolling in your app and make sure your design gets the hell out of the way of their choices.

The third sin is finding new, intrusive ways to wedge in ads.

My sanity has been saved by clean reader apps that display garbage-free content, on a solid white background with simple in-line images and video integration. More often than not, I find myself saving articles to Pocket (formerly Read It Later) so I can read them free of ads and other distracting bullshit. Reader apps are a handy way to isolate content from the ads. The built-in reader in iOS Safari will do in a pinch, but my reading experience has been far better on blog aggregator apps like Zite, which grab daily content from the web based on chosen topics and present them in a clean layout. It’s just you and the text. If the viewer can’t sink into your content like a good book, their attention will wander. The onus is on the designer to focus on content, not the shit that makes viewers click away.

P. S. To the assholes who devised code to force app store pop-ups for your shitty free game, please die in a fire. Nothing can make me refuse to visit your website faster thank kicking me out of my current app, which I was using to read your content, for someone else’s ads. If the banner ad company you use pulls that shit, threaten to pull their ads from your site. Do not let those jackasses kill your readership.

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Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.