Take it off

Most of us know a lot of the stuff on our mapping sites are things people don’t actually use. Even without the metrics, we all suspected this. But we still put them on there. We do this because of a pervasive misunderstanding about human cognition:

If they don't want to use Widget X, they can just ignore it.™ -- every GIS developer, everywhere

I can understand the logic of that. If you have kids, when one of them is getting on the other’s nerves, you tell the one to ignore the other. When that doesn’t work you assume you have defective children. A completely understandable conclusion. The fact that it is wrong is just bad luck.

A demonstration is in order. Hit the next link when you are ready. Read the text, and stop when you find the word print.

Go To The Demonstration!

lorem ipsum dolor sit amet print elementum sed ipsum

Excellent! You did that fast. Now let’s try the experiment again. As a bonus, I’m going to give you a secret tip that will make finding print even faster. Ignore anything that isn’t print.

Go To The Demonstration!

neque fusce scelerisque sem ut tincidunt pretium orci turpis aliquam magna at hendrerit purus ligula in velit morbi eleifend mi eget faucibus suscipit ante est adipiscing libero adipiscing aliquet massa velit fringilla ligula nunc eu blandit nisi aliquam erat volutpat praesent urna odio bibendum ut commodo sit amet vulputate et purus pellentesque habitant morbi tristique senectus et netus et malesuada fames ac turpis egestas pellentesque habitant morbi tristique senectus et netus et malesuada fames ac turpis egestas phasellus arcu nulla varius non posuere sed aliquam vel ipsum duis sed ante justo proin mattis enim tortor fermentum laoreet nisi etiam dapibus ornare fringilla duis at mi non sapien tincidunt commodo donec congue massa odio nam tortor diam cursus eget tempus non sollicitudin ac odio sed sodales nulla a commodo condimentum metus ipsum print elementum massa nec facilisis nunc dui vel erat vestibulum consequat convallis elit et tempus velit consectetur vitae duis leo nibh rutrum vitae sagittis at malesuada nec nisi nulla facilisi nulla arcu augue rutrum eu bibendum et eleifend a velit donec dapibus ipsum sed lacinia sodales neque dui ullamcorper leo vel eleifend odio mauris sit amet nisi sed in luctus massa sed ornare ipsum ipsum pellentesque congue magna

Found it yet? Did ignoring the stuff you didn’t need help? Did you resort to CTRL-F?

Not a fair demonstration? You’re right. This exercise gives you a couple advantages over a user on your web site:

  1. You knew exactly what you were looking for. That lets you scan past everything else. Your users don't have that luxury.
  2. You have the advantage of limited switching - everything is exactly the same size, font, color, and laid out exactly the same way. Web sites very rarely operate like that.

Human beings are not capable of ignoring things they perceive directly with their senses. Everything you put on the screen has a cognitive weight for the user. They can’t ignore the stuff you put in your UI that only 2% of people will actually use. They have to look over, around, and through that stuff to find what they really do want to use. The result is by putting things on your site that only 2% of people use, you diminish the experience of the other 98%. Or, as Nobel winner Herbert Simon put it back in 1978:

A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.

When you are designing a new site, give this some serious thought. Government people are really terrible at this. The home page of 99.9% of local government websites look like somebody loaded every link they ever thought of in a shotgun and blasted it onto the page. That isn’t helpful. Our map interfaces often look much the same. Options are good, but options come at a high cost for the user. It is often better to just take it off.