Over the past decade, everyone—and I mean everyone—with an online presence felt the pressure to become a content publisher. Coca-Cola. Costco. Tiny midwestern lawn care companies. Because attention can often lead to revenue, companies produce articles, videos, and podcasts in hopes of engaging with consumers, and a rapidly-maturing UX design industry answered the call. Like sweeping dust under a rug, we hooked readers with infinite scroll and hid pages behind hamburger buttons. Designers helped new publishers make their site look as if it was bursting with content when, in fact, it might’ve only contained 10 articles. Or maybe 1,000 articles? It was hard to tell. It still is. We’ve now gotten so good at designing the web that it practically pours out of our screens, lulling us into a stupor where we abandon all notions of time and space.
Today, technological advances in digital products enable us to hide all the edges and seams, smooth corners until they’re unidentifiable. But designers across all industries have long been in the business of concealing seams. At companies like Apple and Ford Motor Company, industrial designers develop beautiful, unibody casings to cover the guts of laptops and trucks, respectively. This isn’t just about aesthetics. We’ve been cloaking the inner-workings of our greatest inventions since the Industrial Revolution and World War, when new, mechanized objects demanded protective casings to prevent human injury.
By the 1930s, casing was an art. Desk-mounted pencil sharpeners looked like atomic airplane engines. Clothing irons seemed poised to win the Grand Prix. And we don’t even have time to go into what was happening with television cabinet design in the 1950s.
At some point in the late ’90s, our adeptness at concealment transferred to the design of websites. Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) control how html elements—fonts, colors, formats—appear in browsers. Before CSS, the look of the web was mostly an incidental result of webmasters and developers pushing information in whatever way seemed most logical for the time.
We aren’t designed to live in the world we’re creating.
Now, we’re so invested in designing interfaces that provide a seamless delivery of content, we aren’t considering user mindsets that teeter into decision paralysis when confronted with infinite content. Because the fact is, there’s just so much damn content. Everywhere you turn. It would take you more than 11,000 years to watch Netflix’s current catalog. Buzzfeed reportedly publishes 222 pieces every single day. As Amanda Hess wrote for the New York Times, “Movies do not begin and end so much as they loiter on screen. And social media is built for infinite scrolling. Nothing ends anymore, and it’s driving me insane.”
Because the fact is, there are only so many hours in a day, and we’ve reached our capacity. A quote from a report released by media and technology analysts at MIDiA Research states: “[E]ngagement has declined…suggesting that the attention economy has peaked. Consumers simply do not have any more free time to allocate to new attention-seeking digital entertainment propositions, which means they have to start prioritizing between them.”
It’s a privilege to bemoan abundance. We should all be so lucky to worry about having access to too much information, rather than too little. But that doesn’t erase this predicament. Through recent years, we’ve seen what too much online content can do. It obfuscates truth. It breeds falsehoods that damage human connection and empathy. It exhausts us.
And for many of us, myself included, endless content overwhelms, resulting in decision paralysis (also called analysis paralysis). It’s that feeling of scrolling through Netflix for 20 minutes, only to give up and turn off the TV. The search for the edge of content—where seams reveal information as surmountable—becomes an obsession to relieve anxiety.
The discovery of limitations can deepen our connection to a digital product and give users a comforting sense of ownership.
But what if, to combat this anxiety, designers were in the business of revealing seams? Tired of his industry’s race toward seamless design, computer scientist and theorist Matthew Chalmers proposed the idea of seamful design. In his paper titled “Seamful Design and Ubicomp Infrastructure,” Matthew Chalmers defines seamful design: “Some features that we designers usually categorize as infrastructure problems may, to users, be useful interactional features. Examples include the edges and gaps.. .Seamfulness is about taking account of these reminders of the finite and physical nature of digital media.”
It turns out that limitations, or “reminders of the finite,” as Chalmers calls them, are critical to helping people avoid decision paralysis. Many studies have concluded the importance of limitations in decision making, but among the most famous is the Iyengar-Lepper study. From Harvard Business Review:
In 2000, psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper published a remarkable study. On one day, shoppers at an upscale food market saw a display table with 24 varieties of gourmet jam. Those who sampled the spreads received a coupon for $1 off any jam. On another day, shoppers saw a similar table, except that only six varieties of the jam were on display. The large display attracted more interest than the small one. But when the time came to purchase, people who saw the large display were one-tenth as likely to buy as people who saw the small display.
Retail companies found the same principle to be true. When Procter & Gamble went from 26 kinds of Head & Shoulders shampoo down to 15, they saw a 10% increase in sales.
Limitations can also deepen our connection to a digital product. In his paper, Chalmers also explains that seams are a moment of orientation—they can help a user understand the thing they’re engaging with and remember their relationship to it. One of the best examples comes from the fan culture surrounding Mario 64, the first title released for Nintendo 64 in 1996. Fans have carefully documented the game’s many glitches, one of which occurs in the first level when Mario lands a wall kick jump over a seesaw platform. The camera drops under his feet and reveals the construction of the entire level to the player. It feels like opening the hood of an old car—the architecture behind the game is revealed.
Glitches are the result of unresolved engineering. They’re rarely intentional, often the product of limitations of time and technology. But with whole forums dedicated to documenting these glitches, fans don’t see it as a failure of the game’s design. In fact, the discovery of limitations can deepen our connection to a digital product and give users a comforting sense of ownership. They can inspire new exploration of the tools the game offers and encourage community development.
We aren’t designed to live in the world we’re creating. The human body isn’t designed to have 24/7 access to electricity, food, and information. What we are biologically designed to do is satisfy hunger, thirst, and curiosity as soon as possible. Not satisfying these urges requires discipline and willpower, which is something we like to think we’ve evolved to develop but truly, we’re just humans.
But that doesn’t mean we aren’t trying. Sort of. We have algorithms to help focus our attention a bit—Spotify’s Discover Weekly, for example, provides a customized entry point that is much less overwhelming than their catalog that contains millions upon millions of songs.
Then there’s the Calm Tech movement, championed by Amber Case. Calm Tech is the practice of building the minimum amount of technology to solve a problem, with as little ambient distraction as possible—that means no endless phone notifications or pop-ups. While it’s catching on in leadership circles, we’ve still yet to see its practices take hold in consumer design.
Netflix is considering adding a random episode button to take the pressure off decision making, and companies like Blinkist specialize in ways to help you read non-fiction books in 15 minutes. While I appreciate the effort, auto-selection and hyper-abridgement seem like dismal prescriptions for symptoms of a greater problem.
But times are changing, and perhaps the internet as we know it today will look vastly different in a decade. Paywalls are starting to go up. Distribution companies like Netflix are showing signs that they can’t continue to pour endless money into content. Investment capital will shift—the internet is simply not a safe bet anymore. What company wants to put their content on a platform next to racists screaming slurs?
For now, the burden falls on us to decide, every day, how to spend our few, precious free hours. You can find me on my living room couch, remote in hand, anxiously scrolling through thousands of movies I will never watch.