Design values are values, again

Here’s a good rant against bloat and ad-tracking and everything else Maciej Cieglowski has been warning you about for years. Now, somewhere on Twitter I saw @annehelen asking why it didn’t say anything about the look and feel of the nutter right’s websites. And I also saw this project, where a classic Cranky Old Engineer type swapped media diet with a fairly classic Lib Dem Type.

Hilarity ensued. More to the point, the project was a great example of some principles I keep going on about.

Trying to keep up with the world by only reading the Drudge Report was “a nightmare,” Leija said. Drudge aggregates news stories from multiple sources on the Internet and places them in a list with the same, small headline size. I found it hard over the course of the week to know what the important stories were,” Leija said. “I felt under-informed because all that tiny text creates a sense of not being able to tell what is important. It was depressing in a strange way.”

There are several design choices to discuss here. First of all, there’s the anti-design; this is a bit like Harris+Hoole, the chain of fake independent coffee houses run by Tesco. Throughout its existence, Drudge Report has projected a lo-fi, DIY aesthetic while mostly relying for news on briefings from Republican politicians and their staffers. This reminds me a bit of the biggest category of Chinese trolls here; the ones who seem normal and then turn out to have connections in the Public Security Bureau, who know the real story.

Second, there’s the Angus Steakhouse element. Microsoft Research worked out that there’s a reason spammers are so obvious. I’ve blogged this again and again. They’re trying to put off anyone who’s likely to get wise to them, as early as possible. You can try to spot the suckers, or you can arrange things so you only ever deal with people who have already flagged themselves as suckers. Which strategy would you pick? Spammers do this, and so do notoriously horrible London restaurants. It’s ugly for a reason; if you care that it’s an ugly, dodgy-looking mess, they don’t want you there.

Third, there’s some research about typography suggesting messages that are harder to read remain in the mind longer. On the other hand, more readable messages are more likely to be read and understood. There’s a trade-off between conveying information, and making converts. Interestingly, real typographers do behave a bit like this. Signage is usually modernist sans-serif fonts, body text in books is usually a greeked serif. This blog is the opposite, which may mean I’m a clown, or perhaps that I want you to remember that post of Yorksranter’s…but come back and read it again.

So much for type. What about the other stuff? Our guinea pig listens to the radio:

“I was shocked,” Knuth said. “I had never listened to a radio station like that before. I was shocked to see that it was actually just a series of programs of Rush Limbaugh-type guys. It was wall-to-wall programming of these cranky personalities, who were engaged mainly in complaining.”

After years of listening almost exclusively to public radio, which does not take advertising, Knuth was disturbed by the amount of air time taken up by ads on The Patriot, including one ad he heard repeatedly featuring former congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul hawking a food dehydrator.

“I was just constantly frustrated.” Knuth said. “I like to know what happens in the world, and I constantly felt like I didn’t know anything, and also frustrated by the endless sales pitches, which made me annoyed.”

This reminds me of Daniel Kahneman’s work, or more precisely the deliberately crude gloss I wrote here as Kahneman for Thugs. Specifically, Target the Depleted…and Deplete the Targeted. People are easier to convince when they’re tired, ill, or distracted. You can use this to exploit them by picking people like that. It’s possible that audience pre-selection works a bit like this; the Angus Steakhouse model likes people who are too tired and cranky to care.

You can also make them like that by yelling, pouring an undifferentiated stream of irrelevant stories at them, and by filling up the visual field with noisy graphics. Interestingly, one of the best predictors of being banned as a troll is bad English, specifically, your score on standard metrics of readability. This suggests both that trolls are depleted, and that their misspelt yelling imposes cognitive costs on those around them.

Back at the source, our cranky engineer was still cranky, especially because people on Jezebel are really sweary and aggressive and the NYT is often wrong – tell us about it! – but interestingly he seemed happier about changing radio stations because he found NPR less abrasive. In some sense he was aware of the effort all the shouting consumed on his part. And he chose to undergo a “news blackout”, supposedly for other reasons.

So yes, it’s both a style statement and an element of technique.

2 Comments on "Design values are values, again"

  1. Excellent piece. I’d link this as well to “Getting your news from Facebook” which is another area of low differentiation between postings and a lot of background shouting. Twitter too, with more shouting, but perhaps a soupcon more differentiation if you are choosy about who you follow…


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