Modern web page design and superstition

July 31, 2017

In yesterday's entry I said some deeply cynical things about people who design web pages with permanently present brand headers and sharing-links footers (or just permanent brand-related footers in general). I will condense these cynical things to the following statement:

Your page design, complete with its intrusive elements and all, shows what you really care about.

As the logic goes, if you actually cared about the people reading your content, you wouldn't have constantly present, distracting impediments to their reading. You wouldn't have things that got in the way or obscured parts of the text. If you do have articles that are actually overrun with branding and sharing links and so on, the conclusion to draw is the same as when a page of writing on a 'news' site is overrun by a clutter of ads. In both cases, the content is simply bait and the real reason the page exists is the ads or the branding.

Although it might be hard to believe, I'm actually kind of an optimist. So my optimist side says that while this cynical view of modern page design is plausible, I don't think it's universally true. Instead I think that what is going on some of the time is a combination of blindness and superstition. Or to put it concretely, I believe that most people putting together page design don't do it from first principles; instead, much as with programming, most people copy significant design elements from whatever web page design trend is currently the big, common thing.

(This includes both actual web designers and people who are just putting together some web pages. The latter are much more likely to just copy common design elements for obvious reasons.)

Obviously you don't copy design elements that you have no use for, but most people do have an interest in social media sharing and have some sort of organization or web site identity even if it's not a 'brand' as such (just 'this is the website of <X>' is enough, really). Then we have the massive design push in this direction from big, popular content farm sites that are doing this for entirely cynical reasons, like Medium. You see a lot of big web sites doing this, it's at least more or less applicable to you (and may help boost your writing and site, and who doesn't want that), so you replicate these permanent headers and footers in your site and your designs because it's become just how sites are done. In some cases, it may be made easier due to things like canned design templates that either let you easily turn these on or simply come with them already built in (no doubt partly because that's what a lot of people ask for). Neither you nor other people involved in this ever sit down to think about whether it's a good idea; it's enough that it's a popular design trend that has become pretty much 'how pages should look on modern sites'.

(I'm sure there's a spectrum running between the two extremes. I do drop by some websites where I suspect that social media shares are part of what keeps the site going but I also believe that the person running the site is genuinely well-intentioned.)

I consider this the optimistic take because means I don't have to believe a fairly large number of people are deeply cynical and are primarily writing interesting articles and operating websites in order to drive branding. Instead they do care about what they seem too and are just more or less reflexively copying from similar sites, perhaps encouraged by positive results for things like social media sharing.


Comments on this page:

By skeeto at 2017-07-31 07:04:15:

I'm totally with you on all the "persistent sharing dickbar" stuff. It's been driving me nuts for years. Back when Firefox wouldn't scroll correctly on these pages (e.g. skipping chunks of content due to a smaller practical viewport), I figured I must be the only person left in the world who reads a page-at-a-time with spacebar. Obviously the designers of all these sites don't read page-at-a-time or they would have noticed that their site was badly broken.

I think I'm more of a pessimist than you are. Not so much about the fraction of people that are doing these things for cynical reasons (as opposed to just not thinking enough about it), as about the fraction of page views that the ones doing it for cynical reasons get.

There is a fairly straightforward Darwinian selection process going on here: pages that do a better job of attracting readers get read more, and pages written by people who are explicitly doing it to attract readers for cynical reasons will do a better job of attracting readers.

Unfortunately, the only way to fix this would be to change the selection pressures, which would mean people would have to explicitly start penalizing sites that are doing it for cynical reasons by refusing to read them. Which would just start a Darwinian arms race between detection and deception (or perhaps intensify one that already is happening...)

Written on 31 July 2017.
« Some terrible article page design elements on the modern web
Link: How does "the" X11 clipboard work? »

Page tools: View Source, View Normal, Add Comment.
Search:
Login: Password:
Atom Syndication: Recent Comments.

Last modified: Mon Jul 31 01:33:54 2017
This dinky wiki is brought to you by the Insane Hackers Guild, Python sub-branch.