How to Get Clients and Colleagues to Consider User Attention

Paul Boag

As web designers, we understand the limits of user attention and the importance of simplicity when it comes to interface design. Unfortunately, clients and colleagues have other agendas, so how do we enlighten them?

Our clients, colleagues and stakeholders are not stupid. They understand that user attention is limited when visiting our websites or using our apps. They know it because they know they have limited attention themselves.

But despite knowing this, they often add more and more complexity into the sites and apps we build. They don’t see the harm in adding one more field or another tiny link. They don’t grasp that together these little additions have a significant impact on the user’s cognitive load.

Once you introduce multiple stakeholders, things get even more complicated. Each stakeholder is blissfully unaware that their demands are just one of many, and that each person is adding more complexity to the mix.

Sure, we can tell them all this. You can talk about user experience until you are blue in the face. But telling people is often not enough, especially when those stakeholders consider themselves your boss. Instead, we need a way to show them the problem. We need a way to help them learn this lesson themselves. That is where the user attention point exercise comes in.

How to Run a User Attention Exercise

The user attention exercise is a workshop activity you can carry out to help stakeholders recognise the problem of limited attention spans. It helps them make good decisions about prioritisation that will focus the website visitor on the call to action, not secondary content.

1. Brainstorm the Possibilities

Gather all of the various stakeholders into a room and begin the exercise with some brainstorming. Split your stakeholders into smaller groups and get them listing all of the elements that should or could appear in the interface.

Encourage them to come up with as many ideas as possible and to include everything from a link to the privacy policy all the way through to the logo and every call to action. I even have a prize ready for the group that comes up with the most elements.

Once that is done, and the winning team receives their reward, it is time to introduce the idea of limited user attention.

2. Introduce the Idea of Limited User Attention

Explain that there is no way users can process that number of elements as often a groups number of items can easily exceed 40.

As I have already said, most people get that we have limited attention. But if you encounter somebody particularly argumentative, point them at this research by Microsoft which shows that most of us have an attention span of eight seconds (less than the average Goldfish).

Graphics demonstrating limited user attention.
With such limited visitor attention, we need to make tough decisions when designing interfaces.

3. Turn Attention Into Points

With the idea of limited attention established, suggest that we represent user attention as points. I typically use 16 points, at least initially.

I explain that every element we add to the interface is going to cost at least one point of user attention. With 16 points we are saying that a user can look at and understand a couple of elements per second.

Typically people accept that this is reasonable. However, once again, if somebody is challenging and argues people can process more, don’t fight them. Just increase the number of points. Increasing it to say 20, isn’t going to make any real difference to the exercise.

However, before people start spending their points, you need to explain to them that if they want users to pay more attention to one element over another, they need to spend more points on it. For example, if they want people to pay more attention to the logo than that privacy policy they need to give the logo more attention points.

4. Get People Spending Attention Points

With that done, split them back into their groups and get them to start spending points. I often joke at this stage that the winning team from last time now has the biggest challenge because they had more elements on their list from the first part of the exercise. That will serve them right for being overachievers!

As the groups start spending their points, they will make some tough decisions. They will delete a lot of elements from their list and combine others. However, they will still spread their points very thinly to cram as much into the interface as possible. Rarely will anybody spend more than two or three points on a single element. That is fine; we will deal with that in a moment.

5. Highlight the Problem of Spreading Points Thinly

Once the exercise is over, get them to feedback as one big group. Congratulate everybody on making some tough decisions, but explain that there is still more to do.

Show them the Google and Yahoo home pages side by side. Ask the group which they feel is more successful. Without fail everybody will say Google. At this point ask them why Google works and why Yahoo fails. The response you will always get is that Google is simple and Yahoo is busy and confusing.

Google and Yahoo homepages
Google and Yahoo perfectly demonstrate what happens when you divide users attention.

Explain that Yahoo has spread their user attention points very thinly on lots of different elements, while Google has spent all its points on the logo and search box. Now is the moment you break the bad news that every group has created Yahoo by spreading their points too thinly.

I promise you that every time I do this exercise that is a lightbulb moment. Suddenly people get it! They understand their mistake and why it is important to focus the interface on a few things. To drive home this point, get them to redo the exercise and watch them make the tough decisions to focus the user’s attention on what matters.

Educate and Empower Your Stakeholders

The great thing about this exercise is that you haven’t had to argue with anybody and they have made all the difficult decisions. By using attention points, you have focused the stakeholders on user needs and shown them how to make good decisions. They have seen the problem for themselves and learned how to fix it. That means that when you produce the final design, they are going to feel a sense of ownership and be much more likely to accept it.