Stuff and clutter on web pages

Mostly, in this thread on stuff and clutter, I’m talking about actual, tangible stuff, stuff you can throw out or hit your toe against. But stuff can be non-material too, cluttering up our brains or … web pages. Mark Hurst is a usability thinker, and has this anecdote from a recent consulting trip to a company–let’s call it Acme–with a snazzy web site:

…Anyway. Acme had a problem: research showed that their website was completely, unforgivably, disastrously hard to use for their customers. And *ugly*, on top of that, as if it was spat from a template circa 1996. So I sat down with the executives, everyone with a stake in the online presence, to help them improve the business metrics by improving their website.

Here’s an excerpt of the meeting transcript, more or less.

Me: One thing customers complained about was the home page navigation. To quote one customer we talked to, “I can’t figure this thing out and I’m leaving right now.” I think it had something to do with the flaming chainsaw animation that follows the mouse pointer around the screen. Is it possible we could remove that?

VP Marketing: Oh right, the flaming chainsaw animation. I’d love to take that off the site, really I would, but I just think it’s so neat, and besides it aligns with our brand message of innovation here at Acme.

Me: But customers would shop more, and buy more, if it wasn’t there. Wouldn’t you like to reconsider that animation?

VP Marketing: Here in Marketing we have to adhere to our brand guidelines, and innovation is central to that, so I’m afraid the animation has to stay.

Me: OK – next up is the customer complaint about the 18-level-deep flying dynamic navigation sub-menus. Several customers said all the menus zipping around the screen made them dizzy.

VP Technology: I know what you’re referring to. That menu system took our technology team six months to code up, and I have to say it’s the most advanced implementation I’ve ever seen, really an awesome job.

Me: The technology is impressive, for sure… I mean, I’ve never seen 18 nested levels all flying in unison like that.

VP Technology: Thanks, man.

Me: Uhh – sure thing. But I’d just like to push back a little on this – the customers did say that the menus were confusing. How about a simpler menu, maybe just a few links to the top-level categories, and that’s it?

VP Technology: Listen, I’m all for simplicity and ease-of-use and all that, I hear you. I really get it. But I have to tell you, Web technology is moving fast, and if we don’t keep up, we’re going to look like Google or something. A bunch of blue links. Borrring.

Me: Allllright. Now we’ve covered the flaming chainsaw and the flying menus, let’s move on to the logo graphic. Some customers complained that they didn’t want to scroll down a full page just to get past the logo, the large stock photos, and the slogan.

VP Branding: What did they say about the color scheme? I’m just wondering, because the green and fuscia palette is really supposed to, you know, bring forth assocations of innovation and holistic thinking, all while blending in with the flames from the chainsaw.

Me: I think I have a plane to catch. (Exit conference door right)

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Stuff = Dead space: The Feng Shui view


As a way of getting deeper into our new thread on stuff, here is a basic way of understanding why clutter is so bad for you: it “kills” space and blocks the flow of energy around your house and in your mind.

That’s how a Feng Shui guy explained it to me when I lived in Hong Kong.

Feng Shui, if you’re new to it, means wind water (characters above), which is entirely unhelpful in understanding what it is. It’s the ancient Chinese version of geomancy–figuring out how to place buildings, furniture and other features of interior and exterior living in such a way that they make us feel healthier, more energetic and positive.

Feng Shui shares the fate of most things Eastern that are becoming fashionable in the West. That is: there are all sorts of quacks and weirdos eager to sell it to you as modern snake oil. If you know somebody who suddenly put mirrors, crystals and fish tanks all over his house, he probably became a Feng Shui victim.

800px-RepulseBay_holeOn the other hand, if you encounter buildings such as this (right behind a great beach I used to go to), you know you’re in Hong Kong. In this case, Feng Shui (ie, the hole that allows better energy flow) makes for idiosyncratic local architecture.

But if you’re lucky, you meet an expert who treats Feng Shui as the subtle application of common sense. I was lucky.

Ki-hanjaLike Chinese medicine (and indeed Indian Ayurveda), Feng Shui tries to optimize the flow of vital energy, or qi.

That qi is the ki in Aikido and the chi (different transliteration) in Tai Chi and the qi in Qigong. In Sanskrit it is called Prana. It behaves a little like electric energy, as it flows between a positive and a negative “pole”, Yang and Yin. When they stick needles into you in acupuncture, they are using the tiny conductors to amplify the flow of qi along certain conduits (called meridians in Chinese medicine, nadis in Ayurveda and Yoga).

What, you may be asking, does any of this have to do with stuff?

Stuff = dead energy

The way this Feng Shui master explained it to me, clutter in your home or office blocks the flow of qi in that space. The space becomes not just dusty but in effect dead.

Think of a corner of your house, or a drawer or a basement or a tabletop, that is hopelessly cluttered with stuff. (I’m using stuff to mean extraneous things here.) You don’t even want to look into that direction because it makes you feel bad. It reminds you that you should clean it up. Perhaps it reminds you of things on your to-do list that you never did because you didn’t want to, and now they’re piling up in that corner. Perhaps there are really important or useful or sentimental things hidden underneath that crap, but how would you ever know, without digging through it? Just thinking about all this makes you …. go somewhere else–anywhere else–and run away from the clutter once again.

And so your house becomes deader and deader with each cluttered corner. You walk through it as through a graveyard. The constricted space constricts your thoughts, perhaps your breathing (in Sanskrit, Prana means both breath and qi.)

So, to you hoarders: It’s not true that storing stuff costs nothing. It costs you more than any accountant could tally up.

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New thread: A Theory of “stuff”


I have found myself, to my considerable surprise, doing some deep thinking about stuff. As in: Crap. Things. Knick knack. Papers. All that.

The occasion was a move–the before, during and after. My wife and I have been having to confront the cumulative load of stuff in our house and lives, stuff that has to be stored, then moved in order to be stored again. (Irony, anyone?)

If you are a regular reader and remember my feelings about, say, Diogenes or simplicity, or my utter loathing of clutter and complexity, you can pretty much figure out how I feel about stuff.

My wife does not disagree–and fortunately loves me for my eccentricities–but she is nonetheless

  1. female and
  2. not me.

This places her in a sufficiently different vantage point to produce some fascinating and highly entertaining discussions between us and ideas that I want to share with you in subsequent posts.

So I’m starting a new thread (ie tag) called stuff. Talking about things per se would be boring, so we are talking about things only in order to find out more about life and clutter, Feng Shui and simplicity, fear and serenity, and these sorts of things.

As regular readers know, this does not mean that any other ongoing threads–such as the ones on storytelling, the great thinkers, America, Socrates or, of course, Hannibal–will be interrupted, only that yet another one will be woven into them.

Prepare to get stuffed.

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