If you feel like your attention span has reduced, well, you are not imagining things. Research reports indicate that the human attention span is lower than ever. The average attention span in 2000 was 12 seconds, but as of 2015, it was around 8.25 seconds. This is a 25% decrease and the most interesting thing is that we are now lagging behind the goldfish, which has a nine-second attention span.
It is evident that the reduction in human attention span is the reason films are getting shortened as well. The need for fast entertainment has been encouraged from childhood and the effects are now catching up with us. In the ’80s and ’90s, movies with long scenes had high consumption rates. For instance, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was no doubt one of the top-grossing and greatest films of the ’90s, even though it has long scenes where people were just talking. There are literally no fight scenes with complex choreography, no special effects, or fast pursuits but just talking. What has changed over the years and how can a non-intrusive design enhance user attention and not cause distractions instead?
Causes of decreasing user attention
The decreasing attention span is caused by the number of distractions we have in our daily life. There is a sea of generated digital information fighting for our attention and each notification, post or clip needs to be short because otherwise people get bored and switch to another source.
The rise of modern technology and the reduced human attention span seem to go hand in hand.
But come to think of it, this is only logical since distractions are everywhere from smartphones, computers, smartwatches, etc. Besides that, a lot of jobs require multitasking, which is counterproductive for the human attention span. Multitasking is bad for productivity since the human brain can only focus on a single thing at once. Additionally, there has also been an increase in mental and physical health issues with conditions such as stress, anxiety, and depression resulting in attention deficit.
All these factors have played a role in reducing the human attention span, and so product designers have to find a way of designing technology that respects and smoothly captures and enhances user attention, but only, when necessary, while calmly remaining at the peripheral most of the time.
Calm technology for improved user experience
One of the strongest arguments used to validate the need for “calm” technology is that attention overload is currently one of the biggest bottlenecks that most technologies face. Our attention span has reduced, but calm or distraction-free technology aims to put ethical responsibility at the core of UX design. It does not waste your time or try to hook users on a particular service but instead is designed to ensure the users’ time is spent usefully, when needed. It simply calls for product interactions that are non-intrusive and are not over-demanding for the attention. The principles of calm technology are based on:
Reliability: calm tech works even when it fails. For instance, an escalator can still be used as stairs when its motor malfunctions.
Invisible: calm tech works in the background and so there are not multiple devices around you screaming for your attention, which can easily leave feeling overwhelmed or distracted. Standard visual interfaces are typically designed to offer a constant flow of information, often expressed in the form of visual alerts, buzzes, and beeps. This can mean that we pay attention to the wrong things, focusing on unnecessary tasks. Calm technology, on the other hand, reconsiders the information we consume and advocates for the delivery of only what is important. Any unimportant information is often delivered invisibly and quietly in the peripheral environment. For instance, a smartphone’s battery status indicator will only buzz when the charge is low.
Human interaction: this technology celebrates humanity by seamlessly integrating into our lives, facilitating most of the tasks that make us humans. It smoothly shifts and captures the user’s attention when necessary but otherwise stays quietly in the user’s background.
Overall, calm technology should be based on good UX design strategies that go beyond esthetics. But how can we effectively design a technology that forms an important part of the user’s life but isn’t a distraction or intrusive?
Improving user attention with good UX design
To improve the attention span, a good UX should eliminate all unnecessary distractions. Therefore, it is up to the UX designers responsible for designing user experience to focus on components that can sufficiently cope with this phenomenon. People are more likely to leave websites that are too long, as they are more likely to be overwhelmed by the content and structure. However, a well-designed user interface will help them easily navigate and not be overwhelmed by too much information.
How to design for a short attention span
So, how can a non-intrusive design keep you from distraction? To improve user experience, designers should consider:
- Getting rid of clutter: provide users only with useful and usable insights. This will help them take critical actions on time.
- Focus on visuals over text: since users have generally short attention spans, they definitely will not read extremely long blocks of text. However, they are more likely to consume visual text, as visual presentation seems more engaging.
- Optimize actions and content: make sure that your text is optimized for reading and that users can quickly scan through to find the critical points. Prioritize the likely form of action the user will take.
There is no doubt that UI/UX minimalism, progress indicators, and shortcuts to the outcome such as “buy now” buttons, wish lists, and carts have helped improve attention spans by giving users a clear pathway to their desired outcomes as quickly as possible. However, UI should allow users to stay focused on the task. Maybe a voice user interface is a good solution.
While a screen will grab your attention, audio will keep it! That’s why despite the fact that user attention is declining, recently, there has been a sharp rise in the popularity of podcasts, and this shows that voice can help sustain focus.
By 2022, awareness of podcasting had risen to 79% and in 2021, roughly 82 million people listened to podcasts. Forecasts indicate that this number will scale to over 100 million US podcast listeners in 2024. This suggests that comfort, empathy, and increased concentration can come from listening rather than reading as it has been found that most podcast listeners tend to listen to the very end of a podcast. The most interesting thing is that they even pay attention to the ads that play and take action.
In addition to that, voice UIs have impacted how users search for information and how they communicate. As a result, big tech companies are rushing to meet the demand of this emerging technology with voice assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Google Home/Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa, etc. gaining more popularity to take care of the increased aural attention. Voice assistants create convenience and enhance efficiency by utilizing hands-free commands and deeply engaging experiences.
So, why do listeners (and not readers) have the final say when it comes to user experience attention span? First, it is important to understand how we take in information and this will unveil the intricacies of attention span. If you are going to read, then your eyes will shift (left, right, up, down) or close. It is possible for eyes to also drift and scan the nearby environment and if something captivating pops up, that is enough to cause a distraction.
Meanwhile, ears are immobile and that means that your focus can remain on the same thing. This is because listening requires channeling your attention to a single dialog stream. That is why if you start playing music with your phone, any other audio that was on will turn off. And if the audio you are listening to is interesting to you, chances are that you will not only pay attention but also slide into a state of deep focus.
It should be noted that audio, unlike text, usually disappears once words have been said and so user will not have a quick point of reference once it is over. As a result, users are more likely to pay more attention and cling on to every word that is said.
Is voice UI the future?
Ultimately, voice UI is on the way to establishing itself as the ultimate user interface. It removes the complexities of using hands and eyes to search for and consume content. There are plenty of reasons to believe that voice UI is the future, especially when it comes to retaining user attention span:
A high-quality voice UI is not just about convenience but also offers inclusivity. It eliminates access restrictions, especially for people with disabilities related to motor skills, mobility, and vision. It provides a personalized way for users to search for information, communicate, and even control what they have access to. It offers the ultimate opportunity for comfort and companionship, a big reason users are highly likely to use it more and more.
Talking is only natural
Talking is natural to humans from a young age. Unlike touch and click interfaces, speech provides a natural way of interacting with computer devices and so it brings in a human-like experience that feels authentic to users. Designing a voice assistant is like designing a character with a personality, and that’s why people are more likely to use them more and for longer. Humans are more likely to feel attached to technologies that mimic human behavior, as they provide more emotional or intimate human interaction.
Human attention span has markedly decreased in the last 15 years. While technology has had a lot of positive impact in our lives, access to multiple technologies has reduced overall human attention. Switching our attention between smartphones, social media, radio, TV, and other forms of media has harmed our ability to pay attention and complete simple tasks. In order to counter this, UX designers should consider designs that improve user experience by considering interfaces that are easy to navigate, implementing a minimalist design, etc. Besides, the voice user interface is proving to be the ultimate solution for improving user experience and enhancing user attention. This is evidenced by the increasing number of podcast listeners as well as the increased utilization of voice assistants. Ears, unlike eyes, allow users to focus on only one streamed sourced of information.