3 Web UX Rules to Follow (When Designing for Short Attention Spans)

Sep 12, 2016

Working at a software development company is a daily reminder of why communication is so challenging. I’m not referring to the challenge of interpreting the grunts, mumbles, and noises that are generally acceptable ways to express yourself amongst developers. What I mean is that there is a lot to compete with when trying to get someone’s attention. Most of my coworkers have about 15 programs and about 50 browser tabs open at any given time. This may not exactly be the norm, but it’s certainly a dubious reminder that your website is a little blue-and-green planet in an overabundant universe of other stimuli.

The economist, Herbert Simon, used the term “satisficing” to describe what administrators do when they “look for a course of action that is satisfactory or ‘good enough’.” He said they act without exploring all the options and they use “rules of thumb that don’t make impossible demands upon their capacity.” Today we are all administrators at full capacity, and we all satisfice (even when we have the time not to). This is a side effect of navigating through the deluge of information thrust upon us on a daily basis. We skim, we skip, we look at pictures, we read just enough to understand or to give up in frustration and pull up YouTube to watch 5 second increments of videos. When is the last time you read through an entire website that wasn’t yours? My guess is that TLC still had two singles near the top of the Hot 100 Billboard Chart.

Most users leave web pages in 10-20 seconds. This is primarily because there is nothing to compel them not to, and because there are plenty of not-terrible websites to look at. This tendency to satisfice our way through the Internet should be a major factor when it comes to user experience (UX) design. The following are 3 important rules that will help you create a website suited for today’s easily distracted audience.

1. Important Information First

Traditional journalism uses the “inverted pyramid” style, where you answer the 6 key questions (Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How) within the first 2 or 3 paragraphs. The modern-day reason behind this structure is to give the readers the most relevant information at the beginning so they don’t have to trudge through your long-winded article (and to make it easier for editors to cut copy). What does this mean for you? Consider what your users want to know, see, or do (or what you want them to do) and make it easy to find.

2. Tap Into Expectations

We organize our knowledge and expectations into “schemata” to help us make sense of the world. These are basic mental models built around our experiences. When we open up a report, we expect one of the first pages to be the “Table of Contents.” Put it at the end of the document and call it “Where Stuff Is” and it violates our schemata, which makes our lives more difficult. Don’t get me not-right, information design that alters and reverses expectations has its place, but I’m guessing that most people don’t visit your site to marvel at its radical take on menu placement.

3. Be Consistently Consistent

We alter and recreate our schemata rapidly. If I’m reading a manual where sections are numbered, it doesn’t take me long to adapt to another manual that breaks sections up by letters. (Why I am reading so many manuals is irrelevant.) The point is that users very quickly create, revise, or recreate schemata for your website. If all your section headings are pink and 18pt, then I know I’m moving to a new section when I see a heading that is pink and 18pts. Switch these headings to orange orange and 14pts, and I’m already moving my mouse to the little “x” at the top of my screen.

The (arguably) primary goal of website UX design is to optimize the interaction between the user and the site. There is a lot that goes into this, but if you can follow the 3 rules I’ve laid out, you’re well on your way to holding the fleeting attention of your website’s visitors.

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