inessential by Brent Simmons

The Readable Future

The ability to read uncluttered web pages is going mainstream.

I made the point recently that technical people can avoid, or at least cut down on, ads, sharing buttons, and clutter when reading web pages — they have RSS readers, Instapaper, Readability, Safari’s Reader button, AdBlock, Flipboard, Zite, and so on.

Not all of these technologies were made with the goal of uncluttering web pages, but they have that effect. No app built for reading starts with the premise that the publisher has done an acceptable job.

That premise is, unfortunately, generally correct, and those apps and technologies are becoming more and more popular, particularly with the rise of iPad as a great reading device. (But this isn’t only about iPads, or even mobile.)

Publications shouldn’t ignore this trend.

This trend means that their medley-of-madness designs will increasingly be routed-around, starting with presumably their most-favored readers, the more affluent and technical, but extending to the less-affluent and less-technical until it includes just about everybody.

The future is, one way or another, readable.

Because that’s what readers want, and because the technology is easier to find and use and learn than ever. That trend will continue because developers live to give people technologies that make life better.

This means that ads will go un-viewed. Analytics will be less and less accurate. (They’re already inaccurate.)

Part of me wants to appeal to publishers based on emotion. The idea that the HTML web becomes the poor version, the version that only poor Dickens urchins read, while the rest of us are comfortably reading in Flipboard and Instapaper and RSS readers, makes me so sad I can hardly stand it. I love the web, the web based on http and HTML and CSS, the web that appears in web browsers. The extent that I, and people I know and people like me, already avoid this web is shameful — but we do it because we like to read. The shame is not ours.

And part of me wants to appeal to publishers based on the Apple argument. That argument says: if you do what Apple does — pay extraordinary attention to user experience; make elegant and delightful things — then you will make money.

Though Apple continuously proves this argument true, I’m not sure most people will ever believe it. It requires a certain amount of faith, and it requires trusting intuition and taste more than analytics and received wisdom. It requires a belief in humanity — or, perhaps more accurately, respect for humanity — that is believed to be incompatible with business.

And people don’t get fired for measuring things. People don’t often get fired for continuing to do things the same way they’ve always been done. But people do get fired for taking risks that don’t pan out.

Instead I won’t appeal to publishers at all. I’ll just say again that the future is readable. This could include your site, as you’ve designed it, as it appears in a browser, where you can register some ad impressions — or not.

Readers are smart, and they love to read, and they’ll go where they can read, and they have more and more options.