Overwhelmed at your computer? Close some tabs – study

Science and Health

A recently-released Finnish study found that a quarter of internet users are overwhelmed by clutter in their internet browsers. 

Browsing clutter, according to the Aalto University study, “includes the amount of tabs and windows, content of the web pages and interactive elements, navigation and search process.”

“We began exploring which challenges make users feel overwhelmed when browsing the internet. We also mapped the behaviors that cause the clutter and how users react to the stress,” Aalto University’s Associate Professor and Head of Department Janne Lindqvist told university interviewers.

Researchers conducted remote interviews via video conferencing software with 17 total participants in order to collect data. Each interviewee was asked detailed questions about their internet browsing habits over the course of the 60-75 minute session. “For example,” wrote study authors, “we explored participants’ web browsing behavior using questions, such as ‘How often do you clean up your tabs and windows?’ and ‘When do you close the unnecessary ones?'”

What exactly is bothering internet users?

After compiling and analyzing the data from the interviews, researchers were able to narrow down several criteria for what is considered browsing clutter. A frequent criterion was the number of open windows and tabs. They described a decreasingly pleasant experience as tabs piled up and it became more and more difficult to see exactly what web pages they had open. 

A man types on a computer (credit: INGIMAGE)

Participants also reported that advertisements on web pages, especially those disguised as native elements of the website, were particularly confusing and made the browsing experience more stressful. 

Half of those interviewed also expressed confusion around the web search and navigation process. They described getting side-tracked while attempting to search a particular topic, leading to an excess of tabs and windows. They also reported difficulty in retracing information they had previously found. Some described forgetting open tabs and not knowing “where the tab is and why the tab is there.”

“It’s as though a kitchen table were being used as a dining table, a desk for older children’s homework, and a play table for the youngest – all at the same time and without any tidying,” explained Lindqvist. “People easily forget what they were looking for. Our concentration lapses when interesting things appear on screen, and then we start following links and collecting tabs.”

Users cited several coping mechanisms to deal with browsing clutter. These included intentionally limiting tabs and being particularly diligent about closing tabs when they are done using them. They also noted that there are some browser extensions designed to make the web-surfing experience less overwhelming. However, participants conceded that “these tools did not help them enough compared to the extra effort required to utilize them” and at some point they stopped employing the extensions. 

Researchers determined that consciously limiting the number of in-use tabs open was an effective way to reduce feelings of being overwhelmed while using the internet. However, they did observe effective solutions which were emotion-based rather than problem-focused. That is to say, dealing with one’s anxiety could be a stronger choice than attempting to radically change browsing habits. 

“We use computers every day, and it’s definitely not always ideal. Many things would actually be much better handled only on paper,” concluded Lindqvist. “I look at this from the point of view of how we can live a meaningful and good life despite computers.”