Information Pollution

by Jakob Nielsen on August 11, 2003

Summary: Excessive word count and worthless details are making it harder for people to extract useful information. The more you say, the more people tune out your message.

Saying less often communicates more. Our lives are littered with extraneous details that smother salient information, as these examples from my recent travels show.

  • In the lobby of the Sheraton hotel near Kennedy Airport, an electronic sign hangs above a monitor. The sign has two lines of 20 characters each, and cycles through the following four messages:
    1. For Your Information
      and Convenience
    2. The Monitor
      Underneath Will
    3. Indicate the Flight
      Schedules of All
    4. Airlines at JFK
    Because the monitor's meaning is obvious to anyone who has ever been on an airplane, the sign adds nothing. Worse, it wastes people's time as they ponder the cycling text, assuming that it will eventually say something important. If the goal is to attract attention to the monitor, the sign could simply say:
    Schedules for All
    JFK Flights
  • At San Jose Airport, when you board the shuttle bus from the terminal to the parking lot you hear the message: "Welcome to San Jose International Airport." Since you've just flown into San Jose, this information is hardly enlightening. Better to say something like "Welcome. This bus goes to the Orange long-term parking lot."
  • FasTrak is a transponder-based system that lets you automatically pay tolls on bridges that cross San Francisco bay. Assuming that your car has a working transponder, when you pass a tollbooth a sign lights up that says VALID ETC. The word "VALID" is nice: It indicates that the toll has been deducted from your account and you can proceed. But "ETC"? Does it mean "etcetera" or perhaps e lectronic t oll c ollection? In any case, it's an irrelevant nuisance and communicates nothing given the context of the sign.

Each little piece of useless chatter is relatively innocent, and only robs us of a few seconds. The cumulative effect, however, is much worse: we assume that most communication is equally useless and tune it out, thus missing important information that's sometimes embedded in the mess.

Warning: Superfluous Warnings Are Hazardous

Information pollution is a worldwide scourge that afflicts not just travelers but everyone. In the United States, for example, you can't buy a lawnmower without a label saying that you're not supposed to mow your feet.

Most instruction manuals are littered with "important" warnings that caution against obvious stupidities, burying actual dangers amid a mass of irrelevancy. An out-of-control legal system has made a joke of the entire warnings concept; products are now less safe because nobody bothers to read warnings anymore.

In information foraging terms, information pollution is like packing the forest with cardboard rabbits: frustrated wolves are bound to hunt elsewhere.

Internet Pollution

The Internet is the worst polluter of all. Spam isn't even pollution, it's attention theft . But even legitimate email is typically copied to more people than necessary and contaminated by excess verbiage and endless reply loops. The Web is a procrastination apparatus: It can absorb as much time as is required to ensure that you won't get any real work done. Sites overflow with either low-value stream-of-consciousness postings or bland corporatese.

Studies of content usability typically find that removing half of a website's words will double the amount of information that users actually get.

Let's clean up our information environment. Are you saying something that benefits your customers, or simply spewing word count? If users don't need it, don't write it. Stop polluting now.

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