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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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In the Pipeline

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April 3, 2012

Information Density

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Posted by Derek

This is a small thing, but nonetheless irritating, at least to me. Can anyone explain why some of the pharma-and-tech news sites (such as Xconomy and FiercePharma) have been redesigning their sites with lots of great, big, headline fonts set in plenty of roomy white space? First it was Gmail going to "you-don't-need-all-that" mode, which makes me wonder if this is some sort of foul trend. I may be an oddball, but I like information-dense pages, at least in a news site. All these newer versions look like the low-calorie versions, a bit of colorful stuff dabbed onto an oversized white plate. OK, /grumble for now. . .

Comments (24) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Current Events


1. TJMC on April 3, 2012 8:15 AM writes...

Like it or hate it, it is the trend forward. Some of it is driven by graphic design experts that also look at usability and "bounce rates", but I think another reason is more to blame.

That is, the surge in tablets reflects more and more how folks now (and will increasingly) consume content (not to mention smartphones.) Dense pages are less workable for these modes - you have to pan and stretch more. Also, our fingers are more blunt than a mouse pointer, so there is a need to spread out the active content. Finally, maybe it enables more (*$%%*!) popup ads?

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2. Tony on April 3, 2012 8:22 AM writes...

What TJMC says is absolutely correct. As an IT professional and recent tablet adopter, I can understand it...but on the big screen I hate it too.

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3. MIMD on April 3, 2012 8:27 AM writes...

the surge in tablets reflects more and more how folks now (and will increasingly) consume content (not to mention smartphones.)

That is likely the reason for the new "low density" phenomenon.

Of course, too much of a "good thing" becomes a bad thing when misapplied --

See Experiments on Top of Experiments: Threats to Patients Safety of Mobile e-Health Devices

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4. simpl on April 3, 2012 9:28 AM writes...

I blame powerpoint

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5. Kent G. Budge on April 3, 2012 9:31 AM writes...

Hmm. I've actually toyed with using multiple style sheets at my favorite waste of time, with the intent of better accommodating visually impaired readers, but I gave it up because I found most such readers have already set their browser to override Web site style sheets to use a larger font.

I wonder if the big screen/tablet split argues for experimenting with it some more. This assumes there's a way for the Web site to determine that a tablet rather than a big screen is being used. Perhaps that's encoded in the browser information sent to the Web site.

... Well, you just encouraged me to waste some more of my time ...

Great site, by the way, Derek. I've longed enjoyed the "Things I won't work with" posts, hope you will post many more, and join those who've encouraged you to make a book out of them.

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6. Student on April 3, 2012 9:43 AM writes...

My eyes aren't used to trying to read 2 words per line, for 4 read one sentence.
One sentence one line is all I ask.
(I actually believe there are are studies showing you take up less information this way)

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7. milkshaken on April 3, 2012 10:14 AM writes...

This foul trend has something to do with the disappearing molecular weight and density and boiling point values on the Aldrich and Acros bottles. As a chemist you don't ned all that.

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8. ScrubNinja on April 3, 2012 12:19 PM writes...

UI research shows that it's less fatiguing to use a screen that has a certain amount of white space. We knew that years ago, and it started something of a trend toward less-cluttered sites and software.

Right now, though, I think it's becoming more about style than usability. The popularity of Apple's deices has made their uber-minimalist aesthetic quite influential to UI designers.

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9. MIMD on April 3, 2012 1:16 PM writes...


UI research shows that it's less fatiguing to use a screen that has a certain amount of white space. We knew that years ago, and it started something of a trend toward less-cluttered sites and software.

Not often enough yet in my field (electronic medical records)!

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10. anon on April 3, 2012 1:30 PM writes...

xconomy layout >>>>>>>> firecebiotech layout

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11. Biff on April 3, 2012 4:19 PM writes...

I have to hand it to Xconomy and Fierce: they've increased the whitespace, decreased the content, and yet somehow have managed to make their sites feel cluttered.

FWIW, Scrubninja (#8) is right. The trend started long before tablets became commonplace. A lot of it came about as people started using platforms like tumblr and posterous for their websites, or even some of the more spartan Wordpress themes. Very much a "Web 2.0" gestalt, even if people don't really talk about "Web 2.0" anymore.

While Apple's aesthetics are hugely influential among designers, it's obvious that neither Xconomy nor Fierce grokked the clarity of Apple's website.

Look for things to get much worse soon, as Microsoft rolls out the new, "Metro" interface for Windows 8 this fall. While Metro is horrible on desktops/laptops, it's actually pretty reasonable on tablets and phones. Unfortunately, I expect that a bunch of web designers will try to "Metro-ize" their sites, to the detriment of everyone, including Metro users.

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12. Hopeless on April 3, 2012 5:36 PM writes...

There are lots of white space everywhere.......

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13. darwin on April 3, 2012 6:13 PM writes...



Have a nice day.

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14. rss forever on April 3, 2012 6:40 PM writes...

Heh... bypass all that by using RSS, I use it for your site too! :)

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15. Anonymous BMS Researcher on April 3, 2012 6:46 PM writes...

The tablet I'm using to post this has an option in the web browser "mobile" versus "desktop" mode. All it does is change the user-agent string it sends so it either pretends to be a phone or a Mac computer, causing most websites to send either their mobile version or their desktop version. Since neither is quite optimal for a tablet, I find myself toggling between them. A few websites are beginning to offer tablet-specific versions.

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16. anonie on April 3, 2012 7:22 PM writes...

Not worth posting about.

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17. Anonymous on April 4, 2012 6:11 AM writes...


Don't worry, the producers of dense unreadable EMR displays will simply add a check-box "I CERTIFY I HAVE READ AND UNDERSTOOD THIS PAGE" to ensure any fallout from misreading stays with the doctor.

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18. Rich on April 4, 2012 7:44 AM writes...

I agree with Derek. Once heard a lecture by Edward Tufte (, which was largely a tirade against the low density content of PowerPoint and dumbing-down of information discourse. He made the point that humans love dense information but that dense information is not easily confined to a screen display. NY Times seems to do best job of high density information display on screen and paper.

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19. CanChem on April 4, 2012 9:57 AM writes...

Ignore the boo-birds Derek. I strongly dislike the new layouts too. I like lots of data, presented in a manner designed to make chewing through lots of text as easy as possible. I much prefer the layout here to most sites (although a search function for old posts would be nice).

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20. MIMD on April 4, 2012 12:44 PM writes...


re: "Don't worry, the producers of dense unreadable EMR displays will simply add a check-box "I CERTIFY I HAVE READ AND UNDERSTOOD THIS PAGE" to ensure any fallout from misreading stays with the doctor."

I can imagine this happening. Actually, what is truly needed is for patients to (as in any human subjects experiment) provide informed consent (note - that link is to a post that's partially - I emphasize partially - tongue in cheek).

I do note that there are more patient and investigator protections discussed regarding grant proposals involving health IT, or modification to same, in the typical NIH study section than in a typical hospital system-wide rollout.

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21. Biff on April 4, 2012 12:51 PM writes...

CanChem (#19) wrote: "I like lots of data, presented in a manner designed to make chewing through lots of text as easy as possible. I much prefer the layout here to most sites"

That remark is very interesting, and it highlights one of the main distinctions between sites that I presume Derek likes and sites like the new Xconomy and Fierce sites. "In the Pipeline" is very information dense, but it is not dense at all in terms of design elements, and the placement of those elements is straightforward and predictable. You have a top section, where you will find general info about the site, you have a left column, where you will find info about Derek and a list of things/places he finds interesting, you have a middle column for the main content of the site, and you have a column on the right to find previous content. To a first approximation, you have four elements on the page, so it is easy for the reader to form a mental map of the site and to find the "good stuff".

In contrast, I could go on for days about the usability failures on those other sites. Since no one is paying my usurious fees to do so, I'll simply highlight the "mental map" part of it. Why does one of those sites have a "Top Stories" section and a "Most Popular" section? They are broadly similar in suggesting interest/importance, but what is the difference between the two? We can make guesses, but why should we? Why are they very far apart from each other? Since they are broadly similar, shouldn't they be close to each other? They would be, if the publisher were interested in helping the reader to understand the site, but the publisher seems mostly interested in blurring the distinction between editorial content and advertising content, picking up a few ad impressions by making the reader hunt and click all over the place in search of useful information before losing patience and leaving the site. Just count the elements and map them! Very high site entropy. A pity, since there are some great articles buried among the widgets.

Someone mentioned Tufte's work. Indeed, great stuff. From the perspective of web design, interested parties might do well to look at some of Jakob Nielsen's AlertBox columns over at The latter is a very "Web 1.0" site, but the ideas found in the columns are a useful antidote to today's content-free clutter.

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22. Biff on April 4, 2012 1:02 PM writes...

PS. I concur with some of the other comments regarding EMRs. If you think many websites are bad, most EMRs take the misery to a much higher level. The primary reason for most of this kind of nonsense (which also includes deployments of corporate ERP platforms like SAP, installations of HR job portals like Taleo, etc.) is that the party specifying, buying, and benefiting from the software is not the party who actually uses it.

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23. Hasufin on April 5, 2012 4:17 PM writes...

Some of it comes from actual, worthwhile usability studies in which they find out what is really the best interface for the product. Apple, for example, is well-known and deservedly praised by usability experts.

However, you get a lot of other companies who make their design decisions based on "Hey, Apple's really popular, let's do what Apple does!" because real usability studies are expensive and time-consuming.

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24. alissea on January 28, 2014 8:28 PM writes...

hay the coment that the sudent wrote is varey confusing

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