Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Information Overload: What It Is And How You Can Avoid It

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Information overload: are you affected by it? How can you better manage it? Are big companies giving us more and better information? How can you determine which information is worthwhile looking at? How to you decrease the noise created by the huge volume of info coming at you everyday?

Photo credit: Mikkel

Information overload is a two-sided problem:

  1. The sender does not communicate her message efficiently
  2. The receiver is unable to filter the information and evaluate which is the one she really needs

In this brilliant paper Mikkel explains very clearly what information overload is and how it is silently affecting our life.

It does not matter where you were born, which type of religion you belong to or the color of your skin. Mikkel suggests that individuals are just information-driven, they don't belong to any sociological category when dealing with communication. They should be treated and communicated to only by being highly aware of what specific information they are are looking for.

Information Overload


In our everyday life we are bombarded with information: advertisements in the mail box, fast paced TV, interviews never lasting more than three minutes, signs and symbols everywhere we go, internet pages, chat sessions, offers to buy this or to do that, and lots of other stuff.

We are overloaded with information: the more input, the more we shut off and become cynical. But ad-people, designers and producers respond by feeding us MORE information!

The reason is that we / they rest in a 300 year old mindset, established and maintained by newspapers: that as much information as possible should be conveyed in as little space as possible. The Latin word omnibus means "everything for everybody" and that old newspaper doctrine shows as a desire to impress through a diversity of features mixed in a big bowl of confusion.

The intention is to show the most products and information, so that each one has a "scatter-gun"-ish opportunity to reach a target audience: "Look how exciting I am, here you won't be bored". The focusing on features results in everything being emphasized - and therefore that nothing really is!

I call it featureism.

  • Featureism is a statement of what the transmitter wants to sell. It's not a guide for the recipient to find what she wants.
  • Featureism is not information. It's desperation.
  • Featureism is to go against our nature. It is to go against the way humans naturally interprets our surroundings.
  • Featureism is bad communication and the result is information overload.

But there is another way...

Focused Information


All communication is basically about saying the right thing to the right one at the right time in the right way. The easiest thing in this equation is the external part, finding the target audience, while the hard thing is to handle the internal part: the transmitter:

  • "me"
  • "myself"
  • "I"
  • "we"
  • "us"

The hard part is to shut up. The result, however, is transmitter focus, instead of recipient focus, the result is lost attention and lost market shares.

I know how hard it is, as a transmitter, to focus on the recipient and how easy it is to think of oneself. Besides philosophizing on media, communication and technology, I also (once in a while) design websites. I know the feeling of wanting to sell websites but ALSO sell my ideas (you're reading some of them now) - because I love both so much and would hate to prioritize between them.

My brain knows that it's best to split the two areas, but my heart would rather not let go - and the result is that I send mixed signals of who I am and what I do. My customers also know how hard it is to limit oneself - when I create their sites, the hard part isn't to convince them to try a radical design-idea of mine, but rather to convince them to limit themselves in terms of content. They respond in a slightly desperate tone: "...but Mikkel, I also do this and that - those things must be included!"

But the customer is NOT always right - and the brochures and websites of even big and famous companies cannot be used as an ideal of well designed communication - to the contrary! The bigger the company is, the worse it's communication usually is - simply because it isn't capable of administering and conveying all the information.

Information Tunnels


Focused information often use what I call information tunnels. Communication is focused when it's precisely adjusted to a certain group of recipients. When a transmitter adjusts a certain message to several groups of recipients, and allow the individual recipient to choose which group she belongs to, the transmitter has created an information tunnel.

Using information tunnels effectively, means that one can divide all recipients in groups - but these doesn't have to be socio- or demographically based. I believe that dividing people by age or income, or voting pattern, is less important. It's why they interact with you, their intention, that counts!

To illustrate: all recipients of this very article can be divided into three categories:

  1. Those that has found it by curiosity - they are interested in an easy-understandable and entertaining communication.
  2. Those that were looking for information on marketing - they want a practical guideline in using the theories.
  3. And those recipients that are media- and communication theorists - they desire a scientifically valid communication.

In this case, the recipient's age or daily-life is of no or little importance, only their intention for reading this: whether they are belonging to 1, 2 or 3.

My claim is that whatever we do, we are not sociologically founded, we are intentionally founded. Key to reaching a recipient is not knowing her age, but what she wants to do. As you see, this article is not an example of information tunnels or focused information (rather it is one of featureism) but this article would have been so, if I had made three of them, each catering to the desires of each of the recipient groups.

For instance, take this example of how to effectively create an information tunnel: On the front page of "" there's a large picture of a craftsman on a roof, and the explicit text:

"we lay new tile roofs for home owners on Sealand - specific offer, thorough consultation, a new roof in a league of its own, delivered in only four weeks".
In this way the company's business, mission, geographic reach and terms of trade are all precisely defined in words and pictures.

At the bottom there are three boxes which might seem like features, but in reality are information tunnels:

  • "Choose tiles"
  • "Calculate price of a new roof"
  • "8 tips on roof renovating"

Thus exists an entrance for those most interested in the looks of their new roof, one for those worried about the price, and one for those with a do-it-yourself attitude. On the other hand, it must be said that the language is the same throughout the website, so in this way it doesn't abide the principle of information tunnels.

An accepted idea in business communication is integrated communication:

  • That all parts of a company "speaks the same language"

  • That communication is stream-lined

Besides this principle being de facto impossible - maybe even undesirable - to realize, it doesn't influence focused information: integrated communication deals with the company's communication with, and in relation to, it's surroundings: what's to be said. Focused information deals with how it's to be said.

Focused information is therefore not to change the message, but to vary the delivery and expression, depending on whom the recipient is.

The Trend In Society


Another way to view information overload, is as trend in society. The problem today isn't obtaining information - the problem is to organize it.

  • The history of media started with the invention of writing, which made it possible to convey knowledge across time and space.

  • The printing press, with its efficiency and cheapness, made the written knowledge accessible to many.
  • The telegraph contributed with a previously impossible speed, resulting in an even greater availability of information.
  • The original internet was merely a new form, a technological reincarnation, of the principle.
  • Today's internet, by some called Web 2.0, gives an even greater amount of information, through easy tools for creating, publishing and sharing - this article is an example.

The history of media is thus a single continuous expansion of access to information, now available in enormous quantities - the key word here is quantity. The new is the opposing movement that is awakening: de-selecting quantity and passive reception, to the advantage of quality and active selection. We see it in avoidance of advertisements, traditional media loses readers/viewers, growing numbers even stop watching TV, internet technologies allows customized information channels, etc.

The key word here is quality. For on the one hand, technology increased the availability, but at the same time it has lowered the "cost of access / entry" and increased individuality. "Ordinary people" have regained control, in a form of technological democratization. The individual can avoid information overload and increase the amount of relevance in her life.

The New Way Of Living


In everyday life, this reaction to information overload, is seen in a general return to origins, to a lower pace. It shows in an mild increasing interest in spartan ways of living, nudism, and a general "turning inwards", among other things towards philosophy, religion and emotional health.

The opposite of information overload - silence, emptiness and thoughtfulness - is trendy already: monasteries experience great interest, pilgrimages have returned. The most successful publications are niche-oriented and deals with a narrow subject, or they are dealing with any kind of emotional issue. A symbol of this movement could be Eckhart Tolle: a secretive author that sells millions of books about spirituality.

In the last 20 years, the most talked about, has been that which didn't strive for being talked about:

  • The café that is only discovered though word of mouth
  • A membership only obtained through fulfilling secret criteria

  • a musician that appears incognito
  • A product in limited editions, etc.

All this is a a different kind of quality.

Another result of information overload, is the way we relate to each other. Because a greater part of our time is used on a computer, and as being single, an increasingly greater part of our role models and friendships are found in, and through, the new media. The common theme of almost all currently successful companies and technologies, is the fact that they connect people:

The success of a product or service depends on how many connections it opens. The two major themes that has to be considered in any project, is thus that which is immaterial, and that which connects. The third major theme which I'll write about in another IDmag, is that which I call The CoCreating Consumer.

You've now reached the end of my introduction to information overload, and a couple of my tools and advice on how to avoid it. The rest merely requires you to use your critical sense, a little imagination and some courage.

Good luck!


Photo credits:
All images by Mikkel

Originally written by Mikkel for Design Af Mikkel and first published as "Information Overload: What It Is And You Can Avoid It" on September 18th 2008

About the author

Mikkel is a market expert and web-designer. He focuses his attention on communication techniques and how information should be provided to be as efficient as possible. On his own site Design Af Mikkel he writes: "My philosophy is about balance, about holism. About reaching each other in the best way, about doing it honestly and about having fun along the way." Mikkel has written some valuable papers about information design and "Information Overload" is one of them.

Mikkel -
Reference: Design Af Mikkel [ Read more ]
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posted by Daniele Bazzano on Thursday, September 18 2008, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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