Clutter

Jared Spool

November 4th, 2011

“The problem with this is there’s too much clutter.”

That’s what the legal secretary told me when we were studying her firm’s intranet home page. In fact, the page was pretty sparse in layout. The text was nicely laid out in a readable font, with different weights given to headings and body text. Overall, it was organized and readable. Cluttered just didn’t seem like the right word.

Yet, the legal secretary was quite firm on this. She wasn’t the only one. Half of the firm’s employees we interviewed used the word “clutter” to describe the page that looked anything but cluttered to us.

It might be tempting to rework this home page with more whitespace, more organization, more emphasis on the visual design. However, that wouldn’t have produced any better results.

Over the years, we’ve learned that users have a different meaning of “clutter” than the designers do. It’s not the visual design the users are reacting to. It’s the actual content.

The law firm employees were telling us that the page didn’t have links and resources they needed. The page was full of stuff — mostly things the firm’s marketing group wanted everyone to know — but very little of what was on the page helped the employees do their jobs. Everything they needed was on the intranet, and they knew it, but the home page didn’t lead them to it.

The page was cluttered.

Clutter is what happens when we fill a page with things the user doesn’t care about. Replace the useless stuff with links, copy, and content the users really want, and the page suddenly becomes uncluttered.

The definition of Clutter amongst Dictionary.com's Clutter
Dictionary.com’s definition of Clutter is found on a page, ironically, filled with clutter.

That’s exactly what we did at the law firm. Our design team uncovered those resources the users needed and organized the page to have exactly what the users needed to do their jobs well.

Those users loved the new page. In our evaluations, nobody used the word clutter. They used words like useful, helpful, and awesome.

Here’s the best part: We put the old and new pages side-by-side. The new page definitely had more text, less whitespace, and more dense information design. Yet, when we asked the users to tell us which one was more cluttered, they were unamimous: the old design was the cluttered design.

Are your users complaining about clutter? Maybe you should look at what they actually are seeing.

11 Responses to “Clutter”

  1. John Mohr Says:

    Excellent article, it would have been great to see the example pages mentioned.

  2. Hans Says:

    Very interesting. I think we have a similar problem in our intranet. In the last user satisfaction survey (completed last week), most of the users complained that the navigation is very poor and they don’t find the content they need.
    I think the real reason is not that the navigation is not easy (we reduced from 11 levels to max. 5 levels last year). On the one hand, it might be that the content is not important enough for their daily work, but on the other hand, it is likely a performance issue, because the loading time per page is minimum 3-5 sec. So even if it takes max. 5 clicks to get to the content, users feel like it was more, because of the long loading times…

  3. Cole Lyman Says:

    Reminds me of Cameron Moll’s mantra, “good designers redesign while great designers realign” paraphrased. Here is the supporting article by Cameron himself http://m.alistapart.com/articles/redesignrealign

  4. “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Says:

    [...] When we hear the word “clutter”, we think of visual noise. But Jared Spool explains what users mean when they say that word: Over the years, we’ve learned that users have a different meaning of “clutter” than the [...]

  5. Louise Hewitt Says:

    Nice article, and yes – complaints about ‘clutter’ are something we hear a lot when we benchmark intranets for our members.

    It’s a good reminder that a non-native intranet evaluator can fail to identify clutter in this sense – that’s why real-user feedback is such a critical part of any intranet evaluation.

    Just a further thought – perhaps there are two types of clutter:

    - visual clutter: that which over stimulates the eye (analogous in the physical work place to an untidy desk or a over fussy interior design) that translates into the digital workplace as too many competing items and styles on a page or in a workspace.

    - mental clutter: that which prevents us from isolating and executing a single task (analogous to a overly long to-do list, a meeting with too many items on the agenda, or a filing cabinet full of uncategorised documents) that translates into the digital workplace as a weak information architecture that fails to group items according to user needs and clearly label these bundles and tasks so that they can be prioritised in a workflow or information seeking activity.

    Hmmm, this post seems to be becoming overly cluttered itself. Thanks for the article.

  6. What Is Clutter? – David Robert Hogg Says:

    [...] is an amorphous term that refers to everything the user has no interest in. It’s not just how much is on the page but how relevant that content is. Clutter is what [...]

  7. What 'clutter' means to your users | Dan Rosenthal | writing for a better web Says:

    [...] our more in Jared Spool’s article “Clutter” on User Interface Engineering’s blog Brainsparks. This entry was posted in Sharing [...]

  8. Tim Leighton-Boyce Says:

    Actually cutting all that extra stuff out can be a real challenge.

    There’s a great article with tips on how to approach the work of de-cluttering designs and eliminating unnecessary functions on the Boagworld web site:

    http://boagworld.com/usability/three-secrets-to-simplicity/?t=1320659212

  9. Effective Website Design - 160 Articles of Autumn 2011 - PSD to HTML Blog Says:

    [...] Clutter http://www.uie.com/brainsparks/2011/11/04/clutter/ by Jared Spool: “Clutter is what happens when we fill a page with things the user [...]

  10. SXSW: How to design, simply | Art&Seek | Arts, Music, Culture for North Texas Says:

    [...] Hogue built his talk around a specific premise: Complexity is easy, but simple is hard. As Bowles/Box mentioned last year, government forms are a great example – they get designed augmented and stuffed to the gills with questions and explanations coming from multiple departments without anyone taking the time to make them easier to navigate. And it happens everywhere – whether it’s a website, a form or a brochure, too many stakeholders weigh in until the product is irreversibly cluttered. [...]

  11. “Over the years, we’ve learned that users have a different meaning of ‘clutter’ than the designers do. It’s not the visual design the users are reacting to. It’s the actual content.” | jonathan stegall: creative tension Says:

    [...] Clutter » UIE Brain Sparks [...]

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