As designers in such a world the biggest challenge we face is to invent ways of sifting through the multitudes of data that bombard our users daily, often numbing their senses and scrambling their brains.
When information overload is an annoyance for users, it becomes a tangible problem for businesses. We want to empower our users; we don’t want to overload them. We can’t afford to force them to spend time (and mental effort) filtering the information from the noise. Understanding the key factors that influence a users behaviour when it comes to filtering which information is relevant and which is categorised as noise should always inform our design process, so that the objects, products and services we design function as they are supposed to for those who need them and use them, within the reality of their everyday life.
Indifference toward people and the reality in which they live is actually the one and only cardinal sin in design.
— Dieter Rams
To understand better what we are looking at, let’s have a use a real life example. For a brief moment imagine that we are a pedestrian in Times Square in New York.
Signal vs noise
As one of the most iconic squares in the world, Times Square has massive billboards with an average of 2,013.25 square feet. And via colour, size, movement and meaning, they transmit massive amounts of information to the passers by every day. Each billboard literally “screams” at me for attention.
In The Noise Bottleneck: When More Information is Harmful article by Farnam Street, we learn that:
When the volume of information increases, our ability to comprehend the relevant from the irrelevant becomes compromised. We place too much emphasis on irrelevant data and lose sight of what’s really important.
Since humans have a finite amount of information they can process and since the number of perceptual ‘chunks’ an average human can hold in his working memory is approximately 7, it means that looking at the picture of Times Square, a lot of the information there is actually perceived by my brain as noise and is proactively ignored.
Time vs attention
Looking at the same picture, what is something else that really matters when deciding on which chucks of information should I focus? Is it the amount of time it takes to assimilate the information or the amount of attention I need to give to it in order to understand it? And which of the two is a limited resource?
Going to Jason Fried and his article, The difference between time and attention we learn that the information we chose to consume on a daily basis is strongly related to the amount of attention span we have that day:
I recently realised that if I’m too busy to take something on, I shouldn’t say “I don’t have the time”. In fact, I often do have the time. It’s not that hard to squeeze in some extra time for someone. What I don’t have — and what I can’t squeeze in — is more attention. Attention is a far more limited resource than time.
This means that the information I choose to focus on is strongly influenced by my attention span on that particular day, and not by the length of time I am exposed to it. And it seems that it is also a limited resource.
Emotional state vs user behaviour
Once again diving a little deeper, what other thing within me, the pedestrian of Times Square influences what I choose to give this limited attention to when filtering through the vast number of flickering images showing up on the billboards?
From Liraz Margalit, Web Psychologist and Head of Behavioural Research at Clicktale, in her talk at the UX Insight 2019 Conference in Utrecht, teaches us that a users’ state of mind is an important factor of the success of a digital product and is a reflection of the emotional state the user is in at the time of the interaction. Based on this we can be a disoriented user, not interested user, exploring user, mindful user or a focused user.
So, since today I am in a happy mood it means that, I will involuntarily choose to give my attention to positive looking, happy feeling and perhaps even joy bringing information and will automatically choose to ignore the rest.
Of course we could go one step deeper and analyse the mental models of the user, how information is structured in his brain and how this impacts once again the information he creates. But for the purpose of this article I would like to stop here.
We can thus conclude that the 3 key factors that influence my behaviour when it comes to which information will make it through to me on a particular day are the following (the order used here is intentional, because of the way these factors influence each other):
- the mindset and emotional state I am in, influences
- the amount of attention span I allocate, which in turn limits
- the amount of information I am able to process.
How might we apply this to user experience design?
We now know that depending on their day’s attention span, users make a proactive decision of how much time do they allocate to the activities of the day and how will they invest this time in these activities?
A 2015 study conducted by Microsoft found that the average human attention span has declined from 12 seconds to 8 seconds. This means that our users give less and less attention to our digital products as the years pass.
This being said I would like to leave you with some recommendations that I found to be useful in our product design process and take into account what we have discussed and learned so far about our users:
1. When designing for a limited attention span have in mind the following recommendations:
- Less is more: simplify interfaces by removing unnecessary elements or content that does not support user tasks. Keep only the information that is most valuable and relevant. One technique you could us is functional minimalism.
- Display important information first: give the readers the most relevant information at the beginning, by considering what they want to know, see, or do (or what you want them to do) and make it easy to find.
- Tap into expectations: meet users expectations by using already established design patterns and best practice guidelines; in other words don’t reinvent the wheel, even though sometimes this in itself can be a strategy, most users don’t go to your platform or website to marvel at its radical take on sidebar placement.
- Be consistent: reduce confusion and friction by using a design system; this will make sure that elements of the UI behave the same and look the same throughout the entire product.
2. When tracking “time spent on site” always ask yourself what is the goal behind it
Is longer better? Does that really mean our users love browsing our site? Do they really find the information relevant? Or are they having a hard time finding what they’re looking for?
3. When designing with information: clarify, simplify, and make it as easily accessible as possible
Information needs to be in a form the user can understand and use meaningfully, it should tell the truth of what things mean and how they work and it should take into account the reality in which the user will use and assimilate such information. Always ask yourself: Is the information true? Is it relevant? Is it necessary? Does its inclusion add or detract? Is it in a form that its audience can understand? The last thing any designer wants is to have a service they offer undervalued simply because the user doesn’t understand it clearly
This article was originally published on muzli.li. Click here to read the original article.