Designers realize the importance of managing users’ attention. Everyone wants to attract and properly channel it. However, attracting attention is just one of many instruments of design and marketing. We possess at least five powerful management tools. Using them all will help you achieve better results when developing websites or apps.
Appealing design is akin to music. Using all five tools is like conducting an orchestra, where attention management is the concertmaster. But the only way to create a masterpiece is through achieving harmony with all the other instruments.
Websites and apps are supposed to make users’ lives easier, not harder. This is why designers strive to structure and simplify the content by eliminating or hiding less important information, decluttering the visuals, and making sure the text is high-contrast and legible. Recent years have seen a trend toward minimalism. Minimalist interfaces are easy-to-use and aesthetic, so designers choose this style almost automatically. Cognitive load is considered a burden — but it’s not.
Cognitive load can and should be managed. Information is not perceived at a steady pace. If there’s too little or it’s too regularly spaced, we become bored and tired.
Cognitive load should be increased in strategic points. It can be new information about the product and its advantages. It can be storytelling, animation, photos, or videos. While reading other users’ stories and feedback, the user considers whether he or she needs the product. This is when they make the decision. This is where the cognitive load should be deliberately increased. We need the user to get information about the product, see all the arguments in favor of purchasing it, become convinced of its quality and reliability. It’s a pretty huge chunk of info. So we consciously put this “load” on the user. Obviously, it should not be overwhelming: there’s no place for informational or visual clutter.
Confusing navigation, boring fill-out forms, demands for personal information — all this amounts to cognitive overload. Anything that makes the user pause and think at any point (except when they are emotionally engaged or making a decision) is definitely bad. This is where we need simple ways, minimalism, and ease of use. Simplicity is especially important for performing target actions.
It’s crucial to identify the points of increased and minimized cognitive load at the user-path planning stage.
Memorizing information is also part of cognitive load, but it deserves its own section.
Many designers don’t even realize that they can influence how users memorize the content. Those who work with user retention have a better understanding of this. Our short-term memory only lasts for 20 seconds. It’s enough time for the brain to perceive 7 (±2) items. But they will be forgotten soon unless attention is brought back to them. Information that is repeated more than once passes from short-term to long-term memory. This characteristic of human memory is utilized in the repeating cycles of mobile apps (Trigger–Action–Reward). If you want to make visual information memorable, you need to keep bringing attention back to it. Unless it’s a cycle (website, landing page, online store), your best bet as a designer is to make use of repeating elements or parts of elements, visual rhythms, and scaling. Another great memory booster is encountering the product on social media or in ads: the more ubiquitous the design is, the more memorable it becomes.
Imaginative memory works a bit differently. The one-time emotional and associative impression from an image or a text can be powerful enough to put this information into long-term memory. However, don’t expect this to work with the entire target audience.
Attention management starts with an understanding of what you need to show your user and where you need them to be. First, we have to set our own priorities straight: what’s most important and what’s secondary for showcasing the product? What attention style does our target audience have? This will help us choose the appropriate visual tools.
Things that help manage attention:
- a visual hierarchy tied to the content structure;
- a system of focuses and highlights (color, contrast, size, shape, scale, rhythm, visual weight, negative space, etc.);
- positioning of elements;
- a system of visual guides.
Attracting attention is not difficult; but retaining and channeling it is much harder. Distracted by cool animations, the user may forget why he came here in the first place. Beautiful but non-functional elements only serve to distract and dissipate attention. An overabundance of elements, bright colors, and garish designs quickly becomes tiring.
Good visual design is similar to music. We have a melody (the path we’re guiding the user to), an accompaniment (the elements and guides posted along the path), and a rhythm. A beautiful melody is inviting, appealing, and haunting until the last chord. It makes you want to play it again and again.
Another thing designers can manage is the user’s time. Few people realize it. Many designers only worry about things like load times or think that an easy-to-use interface automatically means a quick and simple way to achieve user goals. The reality, however, is different. Time can be both an asset and a liability, just like cognitive load. Nobody peruses an interface at a regular pace. Any project has critical points in which the user must spend more or less time. In some cases, a deliberately complex interface is justified and forms an essential part of UX improvement. Slowing down prevents the user from making mistakes and helps them act more consciously.
- preventing mistakes (with irreversible actions);
- preventing accidental transactions;
- providing security (e.g., two-factor authentication);
- closely studying information (if needed);
- progress bars (if needed);
- trust-building delays (such as detailed order info);
- user investments that make the product more valuable.
- long waiting times;
- multiple stages;
- confusing navigation;
- filling out long forms and questionnaires;
- unresponsive search function;
- extravagant designs and patterns;
- overabundance of information and distracting design elements.
The sooner you identify the points along the user path where the user should slow down or speed up, the easier it will be to create the appropriate user experience and design. This design will hold the user’s attention at crucial points and simplify (speed up) the way between different blocks of information. Animation and gamification will make waiting times more bearable where they are unavoidable, so that the users won’t feel like they are wasting their time.
Oh yes, it’s also something designers can do! Of course, dealing with human desires is normally a marketing job. However, the power of design to influence desires should not be underestimated. We love with our eyes. Bad design may instantly destroy any trust and discourage the user from buying an otherwise good product. Conversely, good and unique design can make the user buy a product of uncertain quality from an unknown developer.
We know that desire arises from needs. Marketing cultivates needs while design visualizes them. To arouse a true desire, however, we need to engage the person sensually and emotionally. This is why so much depends on design and emotion-based experience. Emotional images, videos, illustrations, storytelling — all these tools are ours to use.
Desire management implies a deliberate choice of visual images by the designer. It can be an image that arouses a need (for example, a picture of a thirsty runner with parched lips) and an image that satisfies this need (having a drink of water, gleaming droplets, water spray). It can also be an image that calls forth specific associations and memories.
Images don’t necessarily need to be overtly emotional. What people often need is an image that is merely convincing or consistent with their expectations. Another good idea is an “image of possession,” whereby the user can picture themselves owning the product offered. This is also achieved through visual design.
Whatever the image, it should be motivating.
To choose the right images, you need to study the audience and the product, then test different options. No matter what you choose, remember that the design must always be aesthetic and high-quality.
Read more: Emotional Design
All of us — designers, developers, marketers — have a responsibility. We must be conscious in managing the users’ cognitive load, attention and time, desires and attitudes. These things should be considered as early as possible to save time and effort on optimizations further down the line.
It makes sense to draw up a diagram for your own use; it should follow the user path, highlighting the points where you need to:
- increase or decrease cognitive load;
- draw attention;
- slow the user down or move them along;
- increase emotional load in strategic locations.
When we appreciate our users and value each and every one of them, it breeds a more responsible attitude toward the effort, time, money, and energy that people expend while interacting with our product. This helps us design mindfully and effectively.