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Sidelinks: Reducing Hyperlink Distractions

I’ve written previously about the distracting effects of excessive hyperlinks: how lots of “hey, click me” blue-lined text makes it hard to focus on a writer’s own writing. In this post I want to air out a design idea that accomodates links, but does so in a way that helps readers maintain focus and momentum.

The example prompting this concept is similar to what you probably see online every day (click to enlarge):

Example of web article with way too many links

Are each of those time-consuming and attention-distracting links truly worth visiting? At a time when focus is a precious commodity, isn’t it odd how often digital documents place exit ramps in front of readers? My idea is simple. Remove the link from the body text and instead use a brief margin note to signal readers that additional info awaits. In sketch form it looks something like:

Link layout alternative: move links into the margins

Links removed from the body text and placed, with brief commentary, in the margin.

I see three main benefits:

  • Eliminating hyperlink distraction. I can’t be the only one out there who finds the mere presence of hyperlinks distracting. Even the majority of times when I don’t follow the links, I find myself struggling to ignore the noise of the unknown: What awaits if I follow that link? Why did the author put the link here and not beneath some other phrase? My mind wanders when what I really want is to focus.
  • Enabling link evaluation. Sometimes all we readers need is a bit more info about what a link points to. Then we can make better decisions about whether the click or tap is worth our time. In the original excerpt I posted, a curious reader can right-click the link to expose the URL — that at least reveals a citation’s source. But is it worth taking the time to do so? And do most readers even know that trick? I think that simply adding a smidgen more info — for example, what I added in my sketch — could help readers quickly judge the value of the target.
  • Offering the possibility of adding “read later” tools. Most people know about “time-shifting” reading services like Instapaper and Read It Later. They’re great for scooping up worthwhile reads that we don’t have time for during a busy day. I think it might be interesting to implement a similar service in a document-specific way. That is, give readers a quick way to say, in effect, “that linked article looks great; please hang onto it and give it back to me when I’m finished reading this piece.” I didn’t add that feature to the sketch, but doing so would be a relatively simple matter of adding in some kind of “read it later” icon next to each link.

Digital documents — books, web articles, business communications — that help readers focus are the ones that we’re most likely to remember. Those that send us scampering around the Web will be more easily forgotten.