In the beginning, the Internet was pure and uncorrupted. The only way a website could annoy you was by bombarding you with auto-playing MIDI music, or perhaps one too many dancing baby GIFs.
In 2016, things have taken a tumultuous turn for the worse. In its awkward adolescence, the Internet has evolved to include elements that are clunky, annoy by design, and disrupt the browsing experience.
There are three user experience sins I feel are worse than others. Here’s what they are, and how you can fight them.
Problem #1: The EU Cookie Disclaimer
The European Union is a deeply controversial entity — especially in the UK, where later this month there will be a referendum on whether the country should remain a member of it. I like the EU. It’s a mostly well-intentioned entity, and has the interests of its constituents at heart. However, sometimes it misses the bar. The EU Cookie Directive is a great example of this.
Cookies are an essential part of the Internet. They’re small files which store information about a user. While they can be used for nefarious means, for the most part, they’re required for websites to work.
The EU’s directive mandates that websites have to gain the consent of users before they serve them cookies, or at least inform them when they’re doing so. While, in principle, this sounds like a good thing, in practice it’s had a terrible impact on the browsing experience, as sites have had to start including distracting pop-ups in order to comply with the law.
Few, if any, of these are optimized for the mobile web, and as a result they look horrendous on smartphones and tablets.
Thankfully, there are a number of browser plugins that will block most, but not all, EU cookie notices. The best out-of-the-box solution is “I Don’t Care About Cookies“. It is available for Firefox, Opera, and Google Chrome. Around 90,000 people use this to bring a bit of sanity to their browsing experience.
Just install it, and those irritating notices will plague you no more. Beautiful.
Problem #2: HTML5 Location and Notification Popups
The biggest change to the way the web works was made at the end of the 2000s, when the HTML5 standard started to reach maturity. HTML5 was more than just an update to the markup language which structures every web page in existence. It allowed developers to natively add previously-unthinkable levels of sophistication and interactivity.
Some of these are awesome. Take Canvas for example. This is an API (Application Programming Interface) that allows developers to draw and manipulate shapes using code and math. It sounds boring, but this has meant that developers can create games that work on mobile devices, use less computational power and energy, and don’t rely on tools like Flash and Silverlight.
Other APIs do an important job, but have the potential to have a degrading impact on the user experience of a site.
Take the Location API, for example. This tool allows sites to determine where their users are located with a previously-impossible level of precision. Site operators like this, as it allows them to gather data on their users. This can then be used to make the content and the advertising more relevant. But to get the location, the site operator must first gain permission. To do this, they show a pop-up. This distracts from the content being shown, and is incredibly disruptive on mobile devices.
@Aetna Why does your website need to know my location? pic.twitter.com/l2fqVEAgUr
— David Neudorfer (@davidneudorfer) November 14, 2015
The Notifications API does a similar job. It allows websites to create desktop notifications. These are heavily used on social media sites – like Twitter – and instant messaging applications – like Slack. But much like the Locations API, these can distract from the experience of using a site. Worse, if you’re the type of person who instinctively clicks ‘Okay’ on pop-ups to get rid of them, you could find yourself being deluged with pop-up notifications you don’t want.
You can banish these requests by making a couple of modifications to your browser. In Chrome, click Settings, then Advanced Settings. Under Privacy, click Content Settings. Then, under Location check “Do not allow any site to track your physical location“. Below that is Notifications, where you should check “Do not allow any site to show notifications”.
Once those settings are set, you’ll never be bothered by location and notifications pop-ups ever again.
Problem #3: Newsletter, Email, and App Marketing
Newsletters are awesome. They allow you to catch up with the news, and sites like Hacker News and Reddit, without having to waste hours of your life. What I don’t like is the way they’re foisted on people.
“I love it when I visit a website for the first time and am immediately asked to sign up for a newsletter,” said no human being in history.
— Nate Lanxon (@NateLanxon) May 17, 2016
You can be absorbed in an article (I’ve noticed that programming, personal finance, and startup blogs are repeat offenders), only for a massive overlay to appear asking you to sign up to their mailing list. Worse, many replace the ‘Close Window’ button with some passive-aggressive line, like “No, I don’t want to be a better programmer“, “I don’t want to save more money“, or in the case of CNBC, “No thanks, I don’t need today’s most important stocks.”.
Some try to get you to “follow” them on Facebook or Twitter.
Or, your reading experience could be interrupted by them trying to get you to ‘like’ them on Facebook or Twitter, or by asking you to download their app. Quora and Yahoo are both culprits in this respect.
So, how do you deal with these? Well, unfortunately there’s no silver bullet, as there is with the ever-annoying EU cookie warning. There is no plugin you can install that’ll deal with these problems once-and-for-all.
Almost immediately, you’ll notice that the sites you’re on will start loading faster. Your browser will consume fewer resources, and your computer will be cooler to touch. It’s incredible how taxing simple web browsing can be.
It Doesn’t Stop There
Of course, this wasn’t an exhaustive list. There are other things about the Internet that many of us aren’t too keen on. Although advertising is a necessary part of the Internet, poorly-policed advertising networks have brought us malvertising. Increased competition for our attention has brought us clickbait. But even at their worst, they still don’t overshadow the awesomeness that the Internet provides.
What’s your biggest frustration with the everyday browsing experience? Have you been able to solve it? Tell me in the comments below.