The human mind and usability part 1: Attention

Towards the end of last year, I travelled down to Marble Arch to attend London Usability Week, which is run by UX gurus Nielsen Norman Group. During the intensive full-day courses, I particularly enjoyed learning more about psychology and how we can use principals of human cognitive behaviour to inform our designs.

Over the coming months, I’ll be sharing some key insights around psychology concepts that affect design across a series of four blog posts; my first focusses on ‘attention’.

The law of of least effort

“Why did that person not see the button?”

“That person must be stupid, not all users are like that.”

“That person can’t read.”

Any of those sound familiar? When designing interfaces it’s easy to blame the person rather than the system, and in the UX profession we regularly face those kinds of challenges. The way people behave online isn’t down to intelligence, but how our brains are wired — our subconscious behaviour.

“A general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical
exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the
same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course
of action.” — D. Kahenman. Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2011

In other words, people are lazy rather than stupid! Usability is about reducing the amount of effort required by the user to enhance their experience and limit the chance of them leaving your site to go to a less demanding/easier to use competitor site.

Designing for distractions

If the person you were talking to suddenly changed in to someone else you would definitely notice it, right? Derren Brown recently conducted an experiment based on an earlier psychology study by Simons and Levin (1998) to put person swapping to the test — watch the video to find out what happened.

Most of us think that we are pretty observant, but when focused on a task people can miss something in plain sight because their attention is focused elsewhere; this is known as ‘inattentional blindness’. Attention is the cognitive process of focusing on certain aspects of the environment while ignoring the rest, which is a mechanism we have developed for dealing with all the complications and distractions of life.

In reality most people are also focussed elsewhere when using the web — in a rush, distracted by children, the doorbell, their phone, the TV…

Nielsen Norman Group conducted a study to learn more about people’s natural online behaviour. They gave a range of people webcams and screen-recording software, and asked them to record themselves whenever they were online over a set period of time. They found that people were doing multiple (on average, around seven) different things online at once; however, people tend to jump between tasks rather than doing them at same time — see the graph below for an example. They also found that people were switching between non web-based tasks too, such as using their phone, eating, drinking, and chatting with friends via a gaming headset.

When carrying out multiple tasks we are prone to errors because we give each task less attention and lose focus. This is why it’s important to think about the natural environment of your audience when designing user interfaces; make it easy for users to pick up where they left off by giving them visual cues.

The LV form below is a good example of this. Car insurance quote forms often feel painfully long, meaning that it’s very unlikely that people will manage to get through them all in one go without a distraction or having to look at other car documents for info. To deal with this, the form field you are on is highlighted in green and the fields you have completed are marked with a tick, making it easy to pick up again if you’re distracted.