David Foster Wallace & How Not To Annoy Your Customers…

In the acknowledgements of his 1997 essay collection 'A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again', David Foster Wallace bestowed interstitial nicknames on some of the people who helped him along the way, the last of which is given to his (I think) sister, Amy ("Just How Much Reader-Annoyance Are You Shooting For Here Exactly?") Wallace, in a pretty humble and humorous acceptance of the fact that DFW didn't always make his writing the easiest thing in the world to breeze to the end of. As the creator of anything that is engaged with by other people, you have tremendous power to annoy the hell out of them; this is as true for website owners as it is for novelists and essayists, though the penalties and rewards differ substantially depending on which of those you are…

How to annoy people 

If you're a writer, you can be annoying in innumerable ways, and as luck would have it, quite a few of these have direct correlates with how you can be annoying as a website owner. It's fair to say that without this serendipitous cross-over, this blog post would, with high irony, be itself entirely superfluous and thus annoying too.

Take too long to say too little

Now this isn't something I'd accuse DFW of ever doing, but less patient readers did probably find the 1100 or so pages of 'Infinite Jest' relatively heavy weather. Likewise, if your returns policy or your privacy policy require a free afternoon and a law degree to get through, then the chances are that you're annoying somebody, somewhere.

Hide important information in footnotes and endnotes

While personally I've always felt DFW's effulgent use of footnotes and endnotes can be adequately explained by his neurotically precise style and a desire to either mock or embrace academic pretensions (possibly both), if you try the same with your website you will almost certainly be found annoying. If you run an ecommerce business, tell people your delivery costs up front rather than sneaking them in on the last page. If you run an ecard website, don't let people fill in the entire thing before they click through to find out that contrary to expectations, they need to pay a $10 per year membership just to send one limply animated shark. Nobody thinks of shopping online as a game, and nobody wants to have to work to find all the salient information required to make an informed purchase.

Make people pause unexpectedly

You can do this in many different ways as a writer: you can wander off on a tangent, you can throw in a syntactically abusive sentence that requires multiple readings to comprehend, you can even just flat out refuse to proceed with your story. You options as a site owner are probably more limited – maybe you've whipped your visitor into a consumerist frenzy and then hit them with a huge mandatory registration page before letting them actually buy anything. Don't do that, it's annoying and doesn't even have the side effect of making your customers ponder whether you're just smarter than they are and that's why they don't get it.

Mislead with the blurb

This one is rarely the writer's fault, but if someone described 'Infinite Jest' on the back cover as a light-hearted look at life in a tennis academy, you might feel a little deceived once you cracked the spine and settled down. Chances are the closest thing you have to a blurb for your site are your PPC ads – don't allow them to make promises your website (and landing pages) have no intention of fulfilling. Keep on top of time-limited promotions & out-of-stock items; keep annoyance to a minimum.


Just how much visitor-annoyance are you shooting for here exactly?

As a writer, annoying your readers is a calculated gamble – a trade-off based on confidence that they trust you enough to follow even when it looks like you're leading them astray. The reader has already invested in you, and while that confidence can be eroded, it takes a while to put down one book and pick up another. If you can't guarantee the same loyalty and indulgence from your site visitors, then think very carefully before you try playing the same game with them…

Profound apologies to the late and very sorely missed David Foster Wallace for using him in such an ungainly manner. Whether you're a site owner, marketer or writer – read him.

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