Forget Minimalist Web Design: Cluttered Pages Aren’t that Bad
06 Oct 2006

Forget Minimalist Web Design: Cluttered Pages Aren’t that Bad

06 Oct 2006

Some time ago iVillage commissioned Dynamic Logic to study the effect of page clutter on the effectiveness of advertising on the iVillage web site. The study strove to discern what effect, if any, ‘online clutter’ (defined as the number of text, image, and advertising elements on a page) had on the brand value score (aggregate of the purchase intent generated, brand favorability, brand awareness, message association, and brand attributes) of the actual on-page advertising.

The research was developed and carried out by Dynamic Logic, OgilvyOne, and Jupiter Media Metrix. While some of the results from the study were expected, many were astounding:

  • There was a huge disconnect between the actual level online clutter and perceived level of online clutter. In other words, test subjects’ perception of clutter was much lower than the actual online clutter of page variations employed in this study.
    • While 300 people were exposed to high-clutter pages, only 79 study participants perceived their web page to be ‘very cluttered’.
    • 91% of those that were shown high-clutter pages perceived them to be ‘somewhat cluttered’ or ‘not cluttered’.
  • Brand value score of the advertised items showed a statistically significant increase only for those pages that had low actual clutter. Brand value showed no statistically significant change for medium and high-clutter page variations.
  • Brand value score of the advertised items did show a statistically significant increase for web page variations that were perceived to be ‘not cluttered’ or ‘somewhat cluttered’.
  • Web page variations that were perceived as ‘very cluttered’ had significantly lower purchase intent rates of the advertised products than web pages that were perceived as ‘not cluttered’ or ‘somewhat cluttered’.
  • Purchase intent rates were also higher for page variations that actually had low clutter and medium clutter.
  • Online clutter did not have significant impacts on brand favorability.
  • Brand awareness showed not statistically significant impacts from online clutter.
  • Message association was more favorable for page variations that had less actual clutter and were perceived as having less clutter.

Study Background

The study solicited participants from iVillage that were exposed to three variations of an iVillage web page corresponding to three levels of ‘online clutter’ as defined by the researchers. Subjects were exposed to the page variations and asked to fill out a survey.

The study included both the actual advertisements and the number of text and image elements in its definition of clutter. The corresponding variations were as follows:

  • Low-clutter pages contained 230 words, 8 colored elements, and 18 interest areas.
  • Medium-clutter pages contained 141 words, 4 colored elements, and 10 interest areas.
  • Low-clutter pages contained 119 words, 3 colored elements, and 8 interest areas.

The analysis was carried out using A/B hypothesis testing and ANOVA variation testing on a data set containing 1500 data points. Therefore, many results of this study were statistically significant for a 90% confidence interval.

Study Implications

It is important to note that the study was conducted for one web page, and even though the number of data points was very large, the results obtained do not directly translate to all web pages. However, we can still use the results from the study to serve as loose guidelines when architecting user experiences for websites that rely on advertising for revenue. We can err on the side of ‘more cluttered’ rather than being tied to the notion that minimalist designs are more effective. This is particularly true if the marginal increase in revenue from adding another advertisement is significant.

In addition, this study also has implications for web sites that are aimed at promoting products as well as selling them. If the marginal increase in revenue from cross-promotional modules or from a high-density product listing is great, it is likely better to err on the side of high-density web pages.

However, this study does not address one important question: What is the effect of clutter on customer retention? Intuition would tell us that user retention is inversely proportional to perceived levels of clutter. Despite this, there are no studies that I have seen that support this. Furthermore, the perturbation that this phenomenon would have on the lifetime value of a user is unclear; it may be that the web site in question makes a lot of revenue immediately and does not rely heavily on long-term revenue.

There is one Burts Media ‘study’ that claims that advertisement clutter on web sites decreases users’ lifetime. I call this a ‘study’ loosely because it seems that the findings relied solely on a questionnaire. For anyone that has conducted a marketing or usability study on the web, this is a huge red flag because what users say and actually do tends to greatly diverge.

All in all, the study covered in this article was well implemented and produces some valuable results. Until I see an equally convincing study that disputes the above-mentioned findings or implications, I think we can all forget the erroneous notion that minimalist web site designs are more effective. Just look at MySpace, Craigslist, and portals such as Yahoo.

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  1. P.J. Onori October 6th, 2006 10:36AM

    I think you know that this is like nails on a chalkboard to me. 😉

    The method of carpet-bombing sites with links has proven to work very well. I would question if this has more to do with the owners of the site not knowing having any idea what the users want to click. With carpet bombing, you’re bound to hit something… I still think that there is a lot of chaos on the Craigslist type of site that could really use a designer’s touch to bring some order.

    Great article once again – I’m enjoying the challenge to my thoughts and opinions.

  2. Leah October 8th, 2006 9:55PM

    Good article. I think that the terms “clutter” and “minimalist” are so subjective in today’s society. If the focus group held many users that were also exposed to other media, i.e. television,newspapers, etc, the other media mediums may have an affect of how the user interprets “clutter” on a specific website. TV, newspapers, etc. have sensory overload – meaning that the user is bombarded with new pieces of information and choices at every minute. It would be interesting to see how these factors related to the end result to this specific study.

  3. Jon October 20th, 2006 2:03PM

    Your headline doesn’t seem to support your roundup of findings from the study.

    Also, the study is five years old. That’s, like, 25 in Internet years.

    Also, I would think the inverse is more interesting: what effect does advertising have on the brand value/customer sat of the site hosting the ads? Would you rather access information from a clean, uncluttered site or from a site saturated in advertising?

  4. Sergio October 20th, 2006 5:05PM

    Thank you for your comment, Jon.

    Regarding the study, it is from 2001 and although a lot of things changed in technological and business terms since then, how people cognate complex visual elements did not. The human species has not greatly evolved since then. It is true that social perceptions and expectations may have changed, but it is a lot easier to make the argument that users have become even more accustomed to cluttered pages than the converse since the average amount of ‘clutter’ has been steadily increasing over that time period.

    I agree that ‘Forget Minimalist Design’ may be somewhat misleading. I guess it would have been more accurate to say ‘Don’t Be Fixate on Minimalist Design’; althought, that does not flow as well.

    Like you, I would love to see a study how ‘clutter’ affects the brand value of the host site. Intuition would tell you that it should affect it adversely, but as is frequently true, there is a divergence between what users say and what they do. For example, there are a number of sites like Yahoo and MySpace that are cluttered yet have strong acquisition and retention rates. If you ever stumble upon such a study, please let me know.

  5. Werkplace November 1st, 2006 5:42PM

    This is one of those studies that needs to have both the visual elements (the designs) that were tested and the questions exposed. This is one of those studies that is so ripe for abuse. It is a study on just one page and in one context, and the results are interesting but…

    Some things I am considering after reading the post:
    Make magazine. I would argue it is “busy” and has alot of “content”, but, that it uses “Minimalist methodology”. The presentation of clutter, or “elements”, is what the entire field of Communication Design as defined by the likes Basel, Cranbrook, IIT, etc. is all about! Information clutter is all about the presentation.

    Take some of the ads in that same magazine. Some are “slick” and some are “ugly”. But the “format” compensates. The put all those ugly ads in one little ugly area which actually makes me look at them becuase it sticks out like sore thumb.

    My “brand experience” is very positive (i would mark it a 5 on a survey). I love the content, the visualization of information, and the interaction that is achieved between print and online. The writers are experts and I compensate advertisers by their association.

    I am also a fan of Post-Modern Deconstructionism as practiced by tDR. But in all that clutter, I find Minimalism. They are commisioned for interactive products.

    MySpace is easy to use, is easy to network into, capitalizes on shared musical experiences, and most importantly, engaging as it allows user customization and personalization. If you want the onscreen clutter to represent your cluttered bedroom, you can do it. It is the personal expression of clutter that makes it appealing. I won’t get into the whole bell curve topic. 🙂

  6. Sergio November 1st, 2006 7:03PM

    Hi Scott. Thank you for your comment.

    I agree that this is just one study, and that it relates to a certain scenario. In writing the article, I tried to be very careful about drawing the correct conclusions and not reading into it too much. At the same time, you are right that this kind of study can be easily abused by using the results derived to make sweaping statements. Jon called me on the title, which somewhat represents my stance.

    I am right there with you regarding minimalist design. I think that it looks great and offers a pleasant user experience. And that definately has some value. In some cases (eg Google homepage) it has a ton of value. In my everyday work, I always struggle to find the sweetspot between getting value from a clean design and getting value by putting more revenue-generating action items, products, ads in the visible part of the web page. This is especially true for home pages that are the most valuable pieces of planar real estate in the world.

    Unfortunately, most of our clients don’t have the kind of budgets that would allow for actually version testing. That would be great because I could definatively say that version A of the homepage is better than version B or vice versa. At the same time, having done hundreds if not thousands of pages, one develops a very good sense of what might be the optimal combination.

    I like to refer to this study not to prove that we should clutter our clients’ pages to oblivion with ads, but rather to remind us that generating revenue for our clients is our number one goal, and we should not fall into blindly designing minimalist pages if ones with slightly more ads, products, etc will produce a greater net effect.

    I once spoke to someone who worked for a competitor of Yahoo. They told me that you can go in the minimalist camp like Google and hope that the user loyality gained from that will outweigh the revenue lost by foregoing additional advertisements that could be placed on your pages, or you can do what Yahoo does because it seems that both models work in discrete situations.

    I took a look at your site and it is beautiful. For you, it definately works because you are an interaction and visual designer. As a visual designer you can not afford to make your site cluttered with advertising and other elements as it kills your brand value. But the article is meant to challenge the notion that minimalist design should always be employed, and to compel us to really weigh the options between including more ads vis a vis reducing the number of visual elements.

    It’s a long discussion with many points pro and con. If you don’t already do so, you should check out . He is a little more moderate in his views than I having come from a visual design background, and we haver personally had many great discussions about how our design decissions affect our clients’ revenues and the aesthetic value of their web sites. We’ll be writing a lot more on this and related topics in the upcoming months, so I urge you to check back weekly and give us your thoughts. ::Sergio

  7. Wayne Rowe May 19th, 2010 6:38PM

    Wow – poorly planned study. I would have expected a better test from OlgilvyOne.

    Ever hear of the paradox of choice? It has been already proven that when you exceed 7 items, it doesn’t matter if you have 100. Everything beyond 7 is high clutter. They used 8 items as low clutter which pretty much made the whole exercise a waste of time.

    Home builders and car makers have proven that upgrade purchases increase when the choices are fewer than five.
    Lawyers have proven that jurors rule in favour more often when they make 7 or fewer arguments.
    Fashion had proven sales increase with fewer styles.

    Low clutter should have been 2 or 3 items of interest. Medium 4-7. High clutter 8+.

    One other point is that clutter cannot be measured in word counts, colours and areas of interest alone.
    Uncluttered design is about hierarchy – directing the reader where to start and in which order to read.
    Contrast in font sizes and images etc.

    ps. I just noticed how old this post is… I will post my comment anyway in case others are still finding it as I did today.


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