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As designers, we are working with people’s attention every day. Our work often depends on our ability to attract attention and spark curiosity in people’s minds. When we fail to achieve that, it is almost guaranteed that interfaces, products and experience we designed will fail as well. Our ability to work with attention is alpha and omega of great user experience. That’s why in this part of Psychology of design, we will discuss ten facts every designer needs to know about attention and how to work with it. Let’s improve our design skills and produce work that will get noticed.
Psychology of design and our attention
I would say that design is largely about getting and sustaining people’s attention. Working skillfully with attention is process that starts with a lot of learning about our psychology. There are couple of questions I want to discuss with you today. First, what makes something almost magnet on attention? Second, how can we get people’s attention and sustain it for a long time? Third, how do we choose what to what we should pay attention to? Let’s find the answers.
No.1: Our attention is selective
It is relatively easy to distract people. On one hand, with a little bit of effort, we can change what people concentrate on. On the other, we are also very good in filtering the information we see or hear. This skill we all poses is called selective attention. Another thing we need to understand is that the difficulty of distracting us depends on how much immersed are we in the activity. I will give you a quick example to illustrate this.
Let’s say that you visit some website because you are looking for specific information. Then, it will be much harder for distracting elements on the page, such as ad banners (do you use ad blocker?) and other articles, to attract your eyes. The same thing applies to tasks and activities that are important for you. The more important something is, the more likely you will focus on that. On the other hand, if you are just “killing” the time, almost anything can distract you and alter your focus.
There is also one thing called unconscious selective attention. We can think about it as our inner observer that constantly “monitors” our surrounding for specific information. These information are related to danger, food, sex and our name. Whenever any of this information appears, we will immediately switch our focus to it. This is why we can hear our name even in the room full of people while we are in the middle of conversation. The same applies to food, danger and sex as well.
First, we will focus on one thing and ignore everything else if we get concrete instruction to do that. However, that task we should do have to take only certain amount of time. If it takes too long, we will not be able or willing to focus on it. Second, we constantly scan our surrounding with unconscious selective attention focused on our name, information about food, danger or sex. Third, if you want to get people’s attention, use their name. It will work like a magnet.
No.2: We constantly filter information
Why is it so hard to change someone’s opinion? Have you ever had to deal with someone with rock-solid conviction about something? Then, you probably know that no matter how much evidence you give these people, they will stick to their conviction. It is almost like they don’t see or hear that evidence. You may not be so far from truth. When we strongly believe in something, we use filters to filter information we receive.
When we receive some information that doesn’t support our conviction, we either ignore it or lower its importance. This kind of filtering is very useful. It helps us reduce the amount of information we have to pay attention to. In some situations, however, this information filtering can also lead to bad decisions. For example, our information are incomplete, outdated or simply wrong. Then, information filtering will prevent us from find any potential gaps in our current knowledge and make necessary corrections.
First, we shouldn’t expect that people will automatically pay attention to information we give them. Second, we should never base our decisions on our assumptions. We should remember that what’s clear for us may not be that clear for other people. This is often cause of many problems between designers and developers, designers and clients and developers and clients. Everyone has different amount of knowledge. We should always explain why we designed something in a certain way instead of just assuming that people will understand it.
Third, if you think that people may filter out some important information on website or anywhere else, make sure to highlight it. You can use contrasting color, increase the size of specific element, use animation, sound or video. This will help you make the element more visible and filter proof. And, if certain information is really crucial, go over the edge and use more highlight than usually.
No.3: We are able to pay attention for limited amount of time
According to book Brain Rules we are able to pay full attention without a break for only limited amount of time. In case we are watching or doing something, the amount of time is somewhere between seven and ten minutes. When we reach this limit, our mind usually start to wander. This is also why many websites focused on e-learning often limit video sessions to this amount of time, or just slightly above. If you saw any video on TED, you probably saw similar pattern. The length of TED videos is usually somewhere between fifteen and twenty minutes.
One reason why videos on TED and also content that generally aims on entertainment can exceed this limit is that they are less demanding and they don’t fatigue our brain as much. Meaning, their primary focus is not education. Similar principle applies also to movies and TV shows. Couple studies showed that in these situations, our brain actually works differently and regions responsible for tasks such as information processing, verbal memory and executive function start to perform worse than otherwise. When we watch TV our brain enters almost hypnotic state.
All that being said, I still have some doubts about this theory on attention. I think that our ability to pay attention is individual and also depends on situation. It can also be trained to increase the amount of time we can focus on that task at hand. Therefore, I think that we should take this with a grain of salt. It is also important that this ten-minute limit is mostly related to decrease of attention not its complete “disappearance”. You can force yourself to focus for longer even if you don’t enjoy the task. However, it will require conscious effort. Anyway, what do you think?
First, you have about ten minutes to engage your users. Then, you will have a hard time making the website, app or interface interesting for your users. Second, if you want to increase the time keep users engaged, you can either give them a short break or introduce new information. Third, if your design contains video content, limit it to seven or ten minutes to get the best outcomes.
No.4: Notable features are more eye-catching
Imagine you are about to prepare a cup of your favorite coffee. It requires you to go through a specific sequence of steps. This sequence includes steps such as preparing the cup, grinding the beans, adding ground, bringing the water to boil, warming the cup and filling it as you like it. You perform this process every day. It is firmly hard-wired in your brain and your memory as pattern of neural connections. In other words, you can perform these steps blindfolded.
No matter how ingrained this process is in your brain, you will still be able to recognize and pay attention to certain things. When some of the beans will be unripe or moldy, you will notice it immediately. Still, you may not be able to tell me how much water or what brand of coffee do you use, unless you are real coffee enthusiast. Another example can be found in your wallet. Can you describe, in detail, how cent coin looks? Can you draw it precisely? Let’s try something different.
Let’s say I will place number of cents in front of you. Every coin will be slightly different from the rest. Can you tell which coin is the real one without looking at the cent in your wallet? Yes, this is better example than the previous one with coffee. The thing is that even if we use something every day, we pay attention only to notable features and ignore the rest. That’s why you may not be able to recognize the real coin from fake one. It contains too many details we don’t pay attention to because we don’t have to. We need to remember only couple of features to recognize the coin.
First, decide what features of your design should be the most notable and noticeable. Second, work with design elements in a way to help these features stand out. Third, remember that people will likely pay attention to the most notable features and ignore the rest.
No.5: Multitasking is a myth
If we ask number of people whether they can multitask, they would probably say that they can. What’s more, some of them could also offer us immediate demonstration. No matter how many times will these people try to convince us, research is pretty clear. Multitasking simply doesn’t exist. We can think about only one thing at the moment. Also, we can do only one thing at the moment. When we decide to read a book, we can’t write or listen to someone.
Well, we can, but we can remember only one of those things and our overall ability to focus and our performance will be significantly lower. It has been proven by study from University of Sussex that multitasking can even cause damage to our brain. What we perceive as multitasking is just fast task switching, which comes with its costs. Let me repeat it again. Multitasking doesn’t exist, except one thing. We can perform physical activity, we know very well and perform often (walking, brushing teeth, etc.), while performing some mental task.
The problem is that there is still some cost even in case of this exception. One experiment proved that even if we perform physical activity such as walking, trying to do another task can have negative consequences. This experiment showed that people talking with someone over phone when walking are more likely to run into objects around them. Yes, also to other people. They are also less likely to notice what is happening around them or to remember it.
First, don’t believe people when they tell you how great at multitasking they are. They are just delusional. In a fact, people who consider themselves as being good at multitasking are often the worst. Second, there is no difference between young and old people in the terms of multitasking, or task switching. Third, don’t force users to perform multiple tasks at the same time. Remember, we can full focus only on one thing at the moment.
Fourth, if you try to force users to perform multiple tasks at once, it will only cause worse performance and produce more mistakes. When we do perform two or more tasks, we can’t pay our full attention to neither of them. Fifth, when you go for a walk, pay attention to people talking with someone over phone. It is likely that they will not notice you.
No.6: We pay attention to danger, food, sex, faces and stories
There are a number of things or topics that will always catch our interest, no matter what. These things and topics include everything that moves (animated and blinking objects, videos, slide shows, etc.); pictures of human faces (especially if the face is looking at us); pictures featuring food, danger and sex (or all these topics at once); loud noises and stories. When any object from these categories appears in our peripheral vision, it automatically catches our interest.
It was, I think, Seth Godin who introduced me to lizard brain and why we often act against rationality. Our brain is basically composed of three different parts. Each of these parts evolved and works in a different way. From the point of evolution, the oldest part of our brain is limbic cortex, or “lizard brain”. This is the seat of our emotions, addictions, mood and other mental and emotional processes. Since this part of our brain is the oldest, it is also the most powerful. That’s why it can be so hard for us to resist certain emotions and other signals coming for it.
We should also mention that it this part what’s responsible for our survival. It has to keep us alive no matter what. This part of brain constantly monitors our environment looking for anything we can eat, we can f… have sex with or what can kill us. When you think about it, it’s easy to understand why this part is the most powerful. We die without food. Human kind will extinct without reproduction. And, if something kills us … You’ve got the idea. It was, therefore, important that it was this part of the brain that evolved as first.
Another consequence is that we often can’t resist to these triggers related to food, danger or sex. Don’t get wrong here. It doesn’t mean that you have to immediately have sex with this or that girl or man. It also doesn’t mean you have to eat everything that’s at your reach. All it means is that you will automatically pay attention to these triggers. That’s it. Interestingly, all these principles also apply to human faces. We are programmed to recognize faces by nature.
First, when you mention food, danger or sex on your website or any other design (or among people), it will be noticed. Second, if you want to catch people’s interest, use pictures of human faces. You can also strengthen this effect by using pictures of faces looking directly at people. Third, use stories as much as you can. As we discussed in previous part, our brain works best with stories. Stories also makes information more memorable.
No.7: Loud sounds are much more noticeable
Imagine you are lying on your bed and trying to fall asleep. As you start to drift off, you will get notification on your phone. It doesn’t matter whether the notification is important or not. Your mind is immediately awakened and all your efforts to fall asleep are needless. Similar thing can happen when you visit someone for couple days and this person has one of those old striking clocks. If you are not accustomed to that striking sound, it is very likely that these clocks will prevent you from falling asleep every hour.
We need to understand that our unconscious mind constantly monitors our environment to protect us from potential danger. Therefore, anything that’s new to our unconscious mind, such sound of striking clock, will catch our attention. When this trigger will repeat for a certain time over and over again, we get used to it, fortunately. When this happens, we start to ignore it. In other words, after couple of days, you can sleep with that clock even next to your head.
First, in case of interface, app or software design, think about implementing sound notifications. Unless your design will be used by users with hearing problems, sound notification will get noticed. Second, if you work with sounds, try to match the intensity of the sound with importance of the notification. Try to use louder sounds only when it’s really necessary to get users’ attention. Otherwise, quieter sounds will be enough. Third, make sure to change the sounds or their intensity from time to time. Otherwise, users will gradually get used to them and start to ignore them.
No.8: We have to notice it before we can pay attention to it
There is a saying that goes like this: “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” In our case, the question is … Will we pay attention to something without noticing it? The answer is no. Let’s say you are looking for your watches (analog). Will you notice the ticking sound? It is very likely that you will. Now imagine you are not looking for them. Will you still notice the ticking sound, say while working or cooking something? Probably not.
The only reason that makes the difference is that in the first example you paid attention to it. Whether we notice something or not also depends on whether we pay attention to it. This is called signal detection theory. This theory can be laid out as a matrix of four quadrants with two axis. The first axis says whether the signal was noticed. The second axis says whether the stimulus was present. The first quadrant says that signal was noticed and stimulus was present – hit. The second quadrant says that signal was noticed, but stimulus wasn’t present – false alarm.
The third quadrant says that signal wasn’t notice, but stimulus was present – miss. The fourth quadrant says that signal wasn’t noticed and stimulus wasn’t present – correct rejection. Let’s bring this into design. Imagine you are working on interface for, say, air traffic control. You want to help prevent any accidents from happening. Therefore, you highlight the planes, using colors and sounds, to make the planes so visible that people working in air traffic control can’t overlook them.
Let’s now change the situation and move on the other side of the edge. Let’s imagine you want to design an interface for dental X-ray. In this situation, it might be better to inhibit the signals little bit in order to help doctors avoid false alarms.
First, when you work on design for application interface make sure to think about the signal detection matrix. You have to consider what consequences will overlooking any signal or false alarm will have. Second, think about hits, misses, false alarms and correct rejections and how you can adjust your design in regard to these quadrants. Meaning, if the consequence of false alarm are worse than miss, inhibit the signals little bit. Otherwise, highlight the signals.
Closing thoughts on psychology of design and attention
I hope that, by now, you understand how important attention is and in what ways you can work with it. Let’s quickly recap the best practices we learned today. First, our attention is highly selective. We can’t pay to attention to everything that happens around us. We choose one thing to focus on at the expanse of something else. Second, we constantly filter information we receive. Everything that gets our attention has to go through our unconscious filters first.
If some information is important, we should always highlight it to make sure users will notice it. Third, we are able to pay attention for limited amount of time. When we exceed this limit, and the subject is not interesting, our attention start to fade and our mind start to wander. Fourth, features that are notable are more eye-catching. We, then, often ignore the rest of features or properties. Therefore, we have to decide which features should be the most notable and noticeable, highlight them and make sure other elements will support them.
Fifth, there is no such a thing as multitasking. It is only quick task switching and even that comes with its price. When we force users to perform multiple tasks at the same time, we are basically asking them to make mistakes. Sixth, we pay the most attention to danger, food, sex, movement, faces and stories. These information are the most important for our survival. Therefore, our “lizard brain” pays special attention to them. Seventh, loud sounds and noise has much higher chance of getting our attention. When we get used to these sounds and noise, we start to ignore it.
Lastly, we have to notice things before we can pay any attention to it. In psychology, there is something called signal detection theory about how we perceive and process signals. This theory tries to explain our behavior when we detect vague or faint stimuli that were not being explained by traditional theories. This theory says why we should sometimes highlight signals to avoid misses, or why we should inhibit signals to avoid false alarms.
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