Summary: Digital products are competing for users’ limited attention. The modern economy increasingly revolves around the human attention span and how products capture that attention.
We are presented with a wealth of information, but we have the same amount of mental processing power as we have always had. The number of minutes has also stayed exactly the same in every day. Today attention, not information, is the limiting factor.
What Is Attention?
Before diving into a discussion of the attention economy, let’s clarify the definition of attention. The formal psychological definition of attention and the way most people think of the concept overlap.
Attention: a selective focus on some of the stimuli that we are currently perceiving while ignoring other stimuli from the environment
In ordinary conversation, we often say “pay attention.” This expression implies two important characteristics of attention: that it is limited and that it is valuable. When we “pay” attention to one thing, we deplete our budget of mental resources so that we have less attention available to spend elsewhere. Theories of human attention all agree that it is limited in capacity. Psychologist and economist Herbert A. Simon described attention as a “bottleneck” in human thought. He also noted that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
The conceit of multitasking is a canard: people can’t attend fully to multiple things simultaneously. Yes, people may have their phone out while the watch television, but if they divert attention to, say, a social media stream, they will miss some of what happened in the show.
The Market for Our Attention
Attention is a valuable resource to us as individuals. This resource is also valued by businesses, political campaigns, nonprofits, and countless other organizations that try to entice us to spend money or volunteer our time. In 1997, Michael H. Goldhaber wrote that the global economy is shifting from a material-based economy to one based on the capacity of human attention. Many services online are offered for free. In the attention economy, attention is not only a resource but a currency: users pay for a service with their attention.
Today, the dynamics of the attention economy incentivize companies to draw users in to spend more and more time on apps and sites. Designers who create sites and apps understand that their products vie for the limited resource of users’ attention in a highly competitive market. The hope of attracting attention has led to the popularity of many different design trends such as:
- Eye-catching animations to call attention to a piece of content
- Busy, crowded designs where a large amount of information is shown at once in hopes that one of the many images or phrases will attract users’ notice
- Advertising campaigns that entice or force users to dedicate their attention to the ad. Some free games offered on the iPhone’s GameCenter include advertisements. The close icon does not appear on the advertisement until the ad has displayed for a certain length of time. This design forces users to watch the full advertisement before returning to the game that they were playing.
- Sites and apps are designed to send frequent and often unnecessary notifications to boost engagement.
How the Attention Economy Affects Users
Often, designers ignore the many different stimuli users need to pay attention to at any moment while using their systems and can inadvertently create designs that require too much attention than users can realistically offer.
In our recent studies on voice assistants, we found that people often used phone-based assistants while driving, when their hands and eyes were busy. One common complaint was that Siri or Google Assistant displayed results on the phone’s screen instead of reading them out loud. For example, even the simple and common task of asking for directions may require the driver to divide her attention between the output of the assistant and the road.
Similarly, the attention of a smartphone user is often divided between the app or website currently used and a TV show or another external stimulus. That is why sessions tend to be shorter on mobile than on the desktop: the chance of an interruption is high.
To understand whether a design overwhelms users’ attentional capacities, it needs to be studied in context. Field studies, diary studies, and interviews can all be used to understand how people are using the system in real life.
Many users are aware that sites and apps are trying to keep their attention. In a recent usability test, a user watched a video on how to prepare pancakes on AllRecipes.com. After the video had finished, the site automatically queued a related video in the playlist. Our participant did not see an option to pause the video. The only options that appeared on the video player were to rewatch the video or to start watching the next video in the playlist.
As the playlist queued, the user observed “it seems like this is keeping me tethered to the computer for longer than I need to be.” The playlist showed an advertisement before each recipe video — the site had a clear financial incentive to keep visitors’ attention fixed on the successive videos.
Some users feel helpless when it comes to controlling the amount of time that they spend on their devices. Digital products are designed to be more and more engaging, often keeping users hooked. The impact of too much time spent engaging with technology is particularly concerning for the parents. Engaging and attention-grabbing designs can become so habit-forming for young people that they may experience “withdrawal” when devices are taken away.
Other users adapt their behavior. Some of these adaptations are conscious and deliberate actions taken to limit time online. Deliberate adaptations include setting a time limit on time spent online, uninstalling certain applications, or use of parental controls.
Users also learn to conserve their attention in subtle ways. Banner blindness, the tendency to ignore advertisements when placed in the right rail or at the top of the page, is an example of adaptation that appeared in response to a wealth of information. Users have also adapted to the barrage of notifications common on mobile devices: they have learned to ignore many of them. During a recent usability testing session, I watched a woman browse for new podcasts on her iPhone. When the first notification of the session went off, she apologized to me and asked “Can you still use this recording for your research?” After I assured her that this was not a problem, she continued with the task. Several more notifications pinged this user’s phone throughout the session and none of them appeared to interrupt her train of thought.
The Future of the Attention Economy
We anticipate that the trends we now observe in designing for attention will continue to evolve. Many companies will choose to create even more attention-grabbing advertisements. Automatically playing videos and unskippable advertisements are almost universally unpopular among users, but designs continue to feature them. Ads may soon become even more immersive in an arms race for users’ attention. Major social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snap are all testing augmented-reality advertisements.
Some companies will continue to produce habit-forming designs that entice users to dedicate more and more of their attention. An optimistic future of the attention economy is also possible: recent developments offer hope for a more equitable attention economy. Rising adoption of a split-revenue model for advertising allows customers to pay with their attention (viewing advertisements) or with money (conserving their attention).
Some companies have responded to their customers’ complaints about distraction and attention-grabbing design. Apple recently changed the design of its notifications to remove multiple notifications in quick succession on iPhones and also introduced screen-time statistics that allow users to monitor their usage of electronic devices.
Certain facts of the digital economy may not change. Advertising will fund some free content for the foreseeable future, apps will compete for new users’ attention, and people will still only have so much attention to dedicate. However, designers have a choice in this economy of attention: they can balance business needs — such as the need for new subscribers, advertising revenue, and profit — with respect for the best interests of their users.
Goldhaber, Michael H. (1997) “Attention Shoppers!” Wired Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.wired.com/1997/12/es-attention/
Simon, Herbert A. (1992)“The Bottleneck of Attention: Connecting Human Thought with Motivation.” Retrieved from: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/c47f/a1729198a8062715423c8d07767f8897f6f8.pdf