When it comes to business, we often hear the advice: Find a way to cut through the noise. The mistake that businesses often make in this quest is that their main goal becomes to craft a message that stands out. But an interesting voice in the crowd is still just another voice. And that doesn’t cut through the noise; it makes things louder.
The main reason that approach goes awry so quickly is because humans are subject to a notion called channel capacity. Channel capacity is not often considered or protected, which is why so many current approaches quickly overload this capacity instead of working with it. At its most basic level, channel capacity is the idea that humans can hold about seven items (plus or minus two) in working memory at any given time. We probably all learned about this limit at some point in our childhood (not necessarily under that name), but rarely consider its implications in our adult lives. Given that we live in the age of overwhelm, channel capacity doesn’t stand a chance. Our customers, clients, and users are drowning in information and messages. Most people are maxed out most of the time. The quantity of messages we are barraged with is crushing, and that’s before we factor in the amount of basic day-to-day items that we keep track of and juggle in our jobs and personal lives.
Our goal as designers and businesses should be to ease the load. It’s in our best interests and it’s in our customers’ best interests. The quickest way for a user or potential client to tune our your message is for them to be bombarded with an overload of information when they get to your website or application. Sites that get excited about blasting all the options / information immediately make it obvious that they are going to add an additional tax on the user’s channel capacity. This is the number one sin I see regarding businesses’ online presence. Unless the user has a high degree of motivation, e.g. no other options or an external requirement, obvious information overload is usually a good reason to bail.
People get excited. It’s normal. Your business is awesome. It provides a fantastic service. You want to tell people about it AND you want to tell people about every nuance that makes it better than the competition. You want to make sure they don’t miss a single aspect of what makes it special. In those moments, remember this basic principle: In general, the more you say, the less people listen. The concept of information architecture is nothing new, but this is a new way to think about the reason it’s so critically important and then to create content / design accordingly.
A fantastic example of channel capacity honored is Google. Google is the most powerful search engine on the web and think about what it shows when you get to their homepage: A simple search bar. One thing. No content. No clutter. No clamoring messages.
While you may not be showcasing a search engine as the main component of your online presence, think of your site the same way. What’s the ONE thing that users have come to your site for? Be incredibly cognizant of that one user goal and you’ll be well on your way to treating channel capacity with respect, which translates directly into treating your users (and their time, and their available brain space) with respect. And that will be the beginning of creating the relationship you want with them.
The concept of channel capacity doesn’t mean you have to leave out important content. You can provide a lot of information without overloading users if it’s presented as a trail. A trail gives people one path and one direction until they reach a decision point, after which, they are still following one piece of information. When I design sites, I keep the mantra ‘A website should be a guided trail, not a maze’ at the forefront of my mind. I’ve seen far too many websites in the wild that are mazes, or worse, guess-and-check systems of information finding.
Craft your online presence to be a champion and protector of channel capacity. Hone one main message. Make it the one your users care the most about. Respect their working memory and their current state of overwhelm. If you design to work with channel capacity and not against it you’ll do more than stand out from the crowd; you’ll feel like an oasis.
(And we all love vacation.)
Additional recommended reading
Don’t Make Me Think
Organize Tomorrow Today
Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has The Time