Ten Steps for Cleaning Up Information Pollution

by Jakob Nielsen on January 5, 2004

Summary: Better prioritization, fewer interruptions, and concentrated information that's easy to find and manage helps people become more productive and stop wasting their colleagues' time.

Our knowledge environment is getting ever more contaminated by information pollution. Things we need to know are drowning in irrelevant information. Symptoms include:

  • In most companies, employees squander an hour or more each day simply "doing email."
  • Employees fritter away 48 hours each year trying to unearth job-related information on bad intranets compared to the time they would need on an intranet with usability in the top 25%. The resulting productivity loss amounts to millions of dollars for mid-sized companies.
  • Many websites alienate users by burying answers to basic questions in useless corporatese.
  • Email messages that customers actually want, such as useful newsletters or customer-service confirmations, don't survive overflowing inboxes -- often because senders ignore the principles of good email design.

What Individuals Can Do

All time-management courses boil down to one basic piece of advice: set priorities and allocate the bulk of your time to tasks that are crucial to meeting your goals. Minimize interruptions and spend big chunks of your time in productive and creative activity.

Unfortunately, current information systems encourage the opposite approach, leading to an interrupt-driven workday and reduced productivity. Here are six steps to regaining control of your day:

  1. Don't check your email all the time. Set aside special breaks between bigger projects to handle email. Don't let email interrupt your projects, and don't let the computer dictate your priorities. Turn off your email program's "Biff" feature (the annoying bell or screen flash that notifies you every time an email message arrives). If you're using Microsoft Outlook, go to Tools > Options > Preferences > E-mail Options and uncheck "Display a notification message when new mail arrives."
  2. Don't use "reply to all" when responding to email. Abide by the good old "need to know" principle that's so beloved by the military and send follow-up messages only to those people who will actually benefit from the reply.
  3. Write informative subject lines for your email messages. Assume that the recipient is too busy to open messages with lame titles like "hi."
  4. Create a special email address for personal messages and newsletters. Only check this account once per day. (If you're geekly enough to master filtering, use filters to sort and prioritize your email. Unfortunately, this is currently too difficult for average users.)
  5. Write short. J. K. Rowling is not a good role model for email writers.
  6. Avoid IM (instant messaging) unless real-time interaction will truly add value to the communication. A one-minute interruption of your colleagues will cost them ten minutes of productivity as they reestablish their mental context and get back into "flow." Only the most important messages are worth 1,000 percent in overhead costs.

What Companies Can Do

At the corporate level, we need to implement four more steps:

  1. Answer common customer questions on your website using clear and concise language. This will save your customers a lot of time -- thus making you popular -- and will keep them from pestering you with time-consuming phone calls and emails.
  2. User test your intranet. Clean it up so that employees can find stuff faster, and make the intranet homepage their entry point for keeping up on company news and events.
  3. Don't circulate internal email to all employees; instead put the information on the intranet where people can find it when they need it. (This obviously assumes that you've fixed the intranet's usability.)
  4. Establish a company culture in which it's okay not to respond to email immediately. This frees employees from the pressure of incessantly checking email and lets them get more work done.

As individuals and as organizations, we can all do our share both to cope with the existing information pollution and emit fewer new pollutants. Ignoring this problem will only make it worse every year. If we act now, we can get it under control.

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