9 - Optimize for Distraction

Distraction applies to anything that can cause the user to lose focus on the task they are performing. There are distractions that the firm can do nothing to mitigate: a prospect looking at search engine results page with 20 links and 4 ads has 23 distractions from your message on the screen before them. A crying child will distract its parent from any task they might be doing on their computer or device at the time.

However, there is also plenty of distraction even when the user is focused entirely on your user experience: every link on your home page that takes them to someplace they did not intend to go is distracting them. Your attempts to cross-sell or up-sell during the shopping process distracts them from purchasing the item they originally wanted (sacrificing an almost certain sale on one item for a slim chance to sell them something different).

Given that your site is an environment over which you have a high degree of control, it stands to reason that you would wish to remove anything that will distract the visitor from doing the one thing you most want them to do.

Two Distraction Points

The author breaks interaction into two parts - the first impression and the message consumption.

Eye-tracking studies suggest that viewers decide what to give attention within two seconds of a page loading. This may occur even before the user begins to read the content, entirely based on visual shapes and colors. If the first-glance reaction is not positive - they find the page unattractive or irrelevant, they will leave very quickly.

It's further suggested that, if users do not bail immediately, the first two to three seconds are spent scanning the page to determine where to start reading the content. And again, if they do not find a place to start, or decide to start in a place that does not make sense because they have missed the first part of the intended messages, chances are high that they will leave quickly.

It is only after choosing a focal point that the user begins to consume the content of a page, skimming or reading according to the visual cues. Here, again, the page may distract the user from the intended goal or fail to support the way in which they choose to consume content.

First-Impression Distraction

The newspaper-era concept of placing important content "above the fold" still holds true: an engaged user will scroll a page to consume the content, but only if his attention is taken by something that he sees immediately, without scrolling. (EN: This distinction is often misrepresented as needing to put everything on one screen, or even to place a call to action near the top of the page, so the author's point should be taken as stated.)

The author also suggests that it is a common problem to evaluate pages out of context - that, rather than looking at the page in a web browser, an electronic or even hard-copy image of the entire page (not just the area the user sees on screen and has to scroll to see more) is often considered.

(EN: I would say that a similar problem is even more widespread, which is the assumption that users maximize their browser window and give the page their full screen - even the author seems to bungle that assumption in the advice he provides about checking the screen resolution rather than the inner height and width of the content window. A related problem comes from viewing screens on a low-resolution projector or on a designer's 21-inch monitor. In truth, there is no one size at which a screen will be viewed, so it takes a bit of research to determine the "real" user experience for a majority of users, and it may require a dynamic approach to suit.)

The author also derides the practice of cramming in too much content to the initial view in an attempt to get everything in front of the user at once. It becomes an utter chaos that does more harm than good. He strays a bit into making copy and graphics too small or overly complex, which is more about clarity than distraction, and says a bit about having too much verbiage, which is a matter of anxiety, both of which are the topics of separate chapters. (EN: And yeas, how ironic that an author who in the course of preaching about eliminating distractions is so terrible about distracting his readers with random blabber.)

There is the mention of size and color as methods of drawing attention, and that this is relative. That is to say that the biggest and brightest things on a page command attention, and if there is not significant differences, distraction results.

(EN: This is an interesting point, as some designers look to absolutes for things like type sizes. Having a 72-point headline is of no value if something else on the page is set in 70-point type in a brighter color. The convention of having one style for a given kind of text, such as a level-two subhead - is thus likely counterproductive in making a visual distinction of what is important.)

An important maxim to keep in mind is that only one thing can be the most important in a given interface - to give two or more things equal prominence causes the user to choose between them, or to feel overwhelmed at having to make a choice rather than following a single path to their desired outcome.

Message Distraction

There is an argument to be made for providing a user with multiple courses of action - which is that you do not have any idea what the user intends to do when they land on a page and wish to accommodate every possible options. Even when this is the case, you likely wish to guide them in a specific direction.

The core problem is that a user who is given many choices must often make a complex decision as to what he should do next - and most are unwilling to invest this effort, instead gravitating to the first thing that seems to lead toward their desired destination (or simply giving up the chase, not knowing which trail to follow).

An so, once the user has gotten past the first impression and has decided that the interface is worth interacting with and knowing where to start and how to proceed, the content itself may pose issues for them.

One problem is having too many messages. "Throw a baseball at someone and he may catch it. Throw six at once and he doesn't have a chance."

The author mentions studies in advertising that show that a single message, preferably repeated, is more effective at selling product than describing a handful of different benefits. While describing three benefits may appeal to three different consumers, each is only interested in his own, and tunes out when you are speaking to other interests.

Essentially, any message that does not speak to a user's specific needs is irrelevant content - hence the three out of five copy points that do not speak to his needs are just clutter that causes him to question his certainty in the other two - I was looking for a phone for my house but you're describing it as being for small to medium sized businesses, so I'm beginning to think it's not what I need.

This is particularly noisome with navigation that is the same on every page of the site, which constantly distracts the user with irrelevant options and provides ample opportunity to quit what he is doing and start over. Particularly when you engineer a landing page to support an advertisement that promotes a specific action, providing the ability to change to a wholly different task is counterproductive.

Much of this is motivated by greed or fear, and optimization testing can provide proof that maintaining a clear focus on one task is far more effective than attempting to accommodate alternatives.