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Information Overload


Are you spending more and more time reading? You're not alone. 'Information overload' is a modern term describing a modern phenomena, where too much information makes decision-making and normal tasks more difficult. A good example of how once simple decisions are now complicated with information is how you order coffee at a coffee shop. 'White' or 'black' used to be the choice. Now we can choose between latte, decaf, expresso, short black, long white, skinny cappucino with cinnamon, and so on, not to mention the choice in cup sizes.

It has been recently calculated that a Sunday edition of The New York Times contains more information than was published in  the entire 15th century. R R Bowker's Books in Print database reveals that in 2001, 135,000 book titles were published in the United States. (There are over 70,000 book publishers in the US!)

Looking at it a different way, since 1980, almost 2 million titles books were published in the US alone, compared to more than the 1.3 million books published in the preceding 100 years.

If you think those figures are mind-boggling, how about this one: the World Wide Web contains some 600 billion documents. And there are more documents published on Intranets than on the World Wide Web!

This change in the amount of information available for consumption is starting to change the way people read. Melbourne's The Age newspaper now features a single 'Express' page containing one paragraph summaries of all the news stories in the paper, so that busy readers can keep up-to-date with only five minutes reading. The curiously created Usability.gov site (curious because it was created by the American National Cancer Institute) claims that users struggle to find alternatives to reading, and 'scanning' is one of those alternative strategies. They usually read the first sentence and/or scan for links on the page.

How do we address the problem of information overload? Through good writing, and good information architecture. The key skills in online content development are writing skills, not graphic skills. The Web may be a new medium, but it still plays by well-established rules.

Usability.gov features some excellent guidelines.


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