Information Overload ≠ Information Design

3The MIT Technology Review reported today on a joint project between Microsoft and the New York Times to bring a print-design sensibility to the online world.

Based on a new feature of Windows Vista, “WinFX”, the Times Browser is a sort of a hybrid PDF-Zinio-XML-CSS-XHTML technology, it’s designed to better enable designers to mimic print-sensible page layouts that scales between devices, without the restrictions and problems of native HTML.

Of course, because it’s a Microsoft-based solution, it’ll have all sorts of problems of its own, but in concept it’s a lovely set of tools.

Despite the best efforts of the best interface designers, and because of the variety of inherent definciencies and limitations of the web, there’s not really any such thing as a “standard” web user interface, or a “standard” web site structure.

That means that each web site one visits requires a learning and discovery process as well as a process for discovering and learning the site’s structure. This is unlike a print newspaper, which everyone knows how to navigate: front page, sections, pages. Easy. (And dirty: ink on the fingers, yuck!)

The contemporary solution to this problem seems to be to provide users with information overload: to help users avoid missing anything, let’s just put it all on the front page. This seems to have been the guiding principle for the Globe and Mail’s atrocious new site design.

Compare this to the front page of a print Globe and the difference is clear. The print edition trusts its readers to find what they’re looking for… eventually. The web site makes the assumption that users will never find what they want (or, conversely, what the Globe believes they should see) so they cram it all into an almost indecipherable cacophony of information noise on the home page.

And perhaps that’s the difference: web designers don’t trust their users. I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

Typically, though, it’s the fault of the oft-neglected basic informational infrastructure of the web site that causes the problems and then breeds this mentality. Users often have trouble finding information when it’s not organized logically and intuitively. The fallback for poor information design, as we see on the Globe’s site, is information overload. It’s like the difference between a department store and garage sale.

Will the Times and Microsoft’s WinFX solve the problem? Probably not: the web is the web and print is print, and ne’ver the twain shall meet. The problem with most contemporary web site’s access to information issues is not interface design and layout, it’s information infrastructure and organization.