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By Ildikó Tuck

Designing for selective attention

Back in 1999, two scientists called Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris developed a fun little experiment involving a gorilla. Okay, not a real gorilla, but someone dressed as one. It has since become one of the most famous psychology experiments showcasing inattentional blindness or selective attention. So, what is this about? You can watch the video here, if you’d like to try it out before reading on.

It goes like this: Participants are watching a basketball game between people dressed in white and black t-shirts. The task is to count how many passes the white team makes. During the game, a person dressed as a gorilla shows up, does a little dance then walks out of the scene. Half of the participants to the experiment reported not seeing the gorilla at all. As the experiment’s authors put it: “This experiment reveals two things: that we are missing a lot of what goes on around us, and that we have no idea that we are missing so much.”

So, how does this affect user experience and how can we design for it?

Reducing cognitive load

The more you ask your user to remember, the more brain space they need to dedicate to whatever task they are trying to accomplish and the more selective attention comes into play. This is an easy trap to fall into; it can be as simple as not placing labels on forms outside the text box so people need to remember what they were supposed to type as they are typing it, or requiring people to remember a piece of information that they’ve entered in a previous step of the process. Following UX best practices to common interaction patterns helps in avoiding or correcting these issues.

Focusing heavily task-oriented pages

Because people are only able to process so much at a time, and might miss important chunks of information while trying to complete something else, it’s important to know when to apply the “one step at a time” method. Checkout flows are a great example of this; asking only for the absolutely necessary and de-cluttering the interface by removing everything that isn’t relevant to the task at hand helps with reducing the information overload, and thus, the likelihood of something important being missed.

Clarity and easy error-recovery

Showing where the user is in the process and making it easy to correct mistakes means less worry and frustration on the user’s side. Having to worry less means more attention can be allocated to processing information.

Designing a predictable system

This one is a little tricky because what’s predictable to one person is often completely surprising to another. Following best practices and conducting frequent tests with actual users is the best way to ensure that the system does what most target users expect it to do, in a way in which they’re expecting it to happen. Studies show that inattentional blindness isn’t an issue when the participants expect something to happen and are looking for it.

Usability testing

No matter how much we try to get it right, there’s nothing like usability testing with actual users to let us know of potential gorillas being missed. A well-structured usability test would have life-like tasks to accomplish and as such, is well suited to showing how much of the product’s content goes unnoticed.

If you'd like to find out more about how inattentional blindness affects us, I recommend this TEDx talk by Chris Chabris.

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