18 February 2019

Grabbing your users' attention, and keeping it

Consultant Fiona De Brabanter is a digital psychologist, digital analytics data and strategy specialist, and a powerhouse of an online marketeer. In addition collaborating with companies to optimize performance, she also gives trainings and writes about her areas of expertise. In this article, she investigates user attention and poses the question, "does it really matter how clearly you formulate your message if nobody takes notice of it?"

Gaining your audience’s attention is a prerequisite for online growth.

When a campaign fails to grab attention, it has zero chance of adding value. It’s not even a blip on your users' radar.

The human brain has evolved internal processes for deciding what’s worth paying attention to, and what’s not. These processes occur in a matter of milliseconds. If you can understand what these processes are, you can apply them to your own marketing initiatives.

When you successfully gain someone’s attention, you open the door for a lasting impression. Gaining and maintaining attention are two separate tasks. This article explores both.

If you fail to grab your users' attention it is not due to their lack of interest. It is entirely your fault. It’s your job as digital marketer to grab your site visitors’ attention and keep it.

Grabbing attention

First impressions

Let's start with trust and loyalty. One of the fascinating things about trust is that we think of it as an emotion. Trust is more than just something that we evoke in others by the way we act. There is a neurochemical basis for trust. Paul Zak's book Trust Factor teases out the science that underlies oxytocin and how that chemical seems to increase trust.

One of his great findings is that hugs release oxytocin. As a result, his lab is often called the Love Lab or the Hug Lab. It's a very reproducible phenomenon, it even occurs with animals. When you interact with your dog, for example, in a cuddly way, you both get an oxytocin boost. Cats, not so much. But it definitely works with people.

What we want to focus on in this article is not hugs--they're very difficult to scale digitally--but there are lessons that we can learn to increase digital trust. To begin with, our first impressions are absolutely critical in trust. Research shows that we form impressions of a website or an app in 30 to 50 milliseconds.

This is almost instantaneous. This is before the viewer or visitor has read your headline, studied the image, looked at your content or anything else. This is an instantaneous first impression. It's formed very quickly. But as quick as first impressions are to form, they also tend to be difficult to change. Once somebody has formed a first impression, research shows that even when you provide information that contradicts that first impression, it does not fix it immediately.

It can take a long time or it may not happen at all. So when people see that first impression of your website, they're getting an overall view of "Do I trust this site?" If you see a website and your first impression is not good, your trust level is going to be low. You are not going to give this website your credit card number or your email address. On the other hand, if you see a site that at first glance looked very balanced in designed and soothing, you would probably be favourably disposed to them. Eventually you might want to actually read the content, find out what they're offering. But, that first impression is really important.

Keeping attention

Cognitive load

Cognitive load is the amount of mental energy that is required to process something, in this case your website. By minimizing cognitive load (thus avoiding cognitive overload), you can keep your users’ attention span, ultimately allowing them to browse your site and eventually make a purchase before getting overwhelmed and abandoning ship.

Cognitive load, come again?

Anything that makes learning harder or distracts us from the information we’re trying to pay attention to increases cognitive load.

Think of rotating carousels on your homepage, distracting or irrelevant graphics, confusing copywriting, an unclear value proposition, or poor navigation. The list goes on.

In short, cognitive load makes things harder for your potential customers and therefore, for your business.

Psychologists and other researchers have identified ways in which cognitive load can be reduced in any environment using more effective information methods, thus encouraging the formation of new memories.

Different forms of cognitive load

Intrinsic Cognitive Load

This type of cognitive load refers to the complexity of the information at hand. The load exerted on your users depends on how complex the task or concept being presented is, and your users’ ability to understand the new information. Building a rocket ship is harder than building a birdhouse.

This type of cognitive load is, by nature, impossible to eliminate: you will always find a difficult, new activity (e.g. solving a complex equation) more challenging than a simple task (e.g. adding two small numbers together).

However, cognitive load can be significantly reduced by breaking information down into small, simple, clear steps. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the seemingly impossible task at hand, the user takes steps in a clear direction that lead them towards the goal.

You might be familiar with the task of assembling IKEA furniture. Rather than assembly instructions containing just one large diagram showing how each piece fits together, IKEA simplifies the process by splitting it into easy, step-by-step tasks. In doing so, they ensure that a customer needs to only grasp these easy-to-understand tasks (e.g. screwing a screw) as opposed to visualizing the entire process of assembling a chair, in order to set it up. They’re also able to focus only on the 2-3 parts they need to use in any one step, rather than a whole box of wooden parts, nails, and other fixings.

Extraneous Cognitive Load

Extraneous cognitive load is produced by the demands imposed on users by the instructions that they are asked to follow. This type of cognitive load is increased by ineffective presentation methods, which unintentionally misdirect users with distracting information or make a task more complex than it needs to be.

Effective presentation methods reduce cognitive load, allowing the user to stay focused on their mission, whether that be learning information or deciding which pricing plan to go with.

Some types of information are more easily understood when illustrated in a diagram than via written instruction. A relatively abstract idea to comprehend can be made simple when demonstrated visually, using a model or a video. The visual presentation of concepts means that the user doesn’t have to retain ideas explained early on in a paragraph in order to understand the final sentence. Instead, they can be referenced simply by looking at the illustration and no extraneous information needs to be filtered out.

Diagrams have proven to be effective illustrations to show the differences between pricing plans. Imagine how difficult it would be to try and determine the difference between these plans if there were a huge body of copy instead of this chart.Image source: Spotify

Germane Cognitive Load

This third type of cognitive load is produced by the construction of schemas and is considered to be desirable, as it assists in learning new skills and other information.

A schema is a developed framework of an idea or object that tells us what to expect when we encounter it in the future. Schemas allow us to identify and differentiate between objects in the world. We use schemas constantly.

We form schemas for people, household objects and ‘script’ schemas for routines and events such as our morning routine, as well as schemas for particular ‘roles’ that we find people enacting, which tell us what kind of behavior to expect from them.

When a stranger approaches you on a city street, your mental schemas tell you whether this person will be asking you for directions to the nearest tourist attraction, or for spare change. As a more relevant example, we all have (probably similar) schemas for what a trustworthy website looks like, versus a less trustworthy one.

Reading patterns

Visual cues are strategically placed graphics that web designers use to guide user experience and attention on a website. By implementing visual cues, designers and business owners can subtly direct users to the most important facets of their website.

However, the situation gets sticky when considering the vast selection of visual cues that are available. You can use arrows, lines, photos of people, borders, pointing fingers, bright banners, exclamation points, check marks… The list goes on.

Which brings us to the real question: Are some visual cues more effective than others?

Analyzing eye-tracking data allows us to run stats to see how much people paid attention to forms and tables and how that differs among cues.

Takeaways? Well, don’t put pictures on your website of a person looking away from where you want a user to look. So, use a visual cue leading towards your forms. Other visual cues like arrows directing the user's attention can aid online conversions.


There are many more practical applications for both grabbing and keeping your users' attention. Some takeaways to keep in mind:

  • First impressions count and play an important role in gaining trust and loyalty. This is one of the first steps in winning the attention of your target audience.
  • Keeping your pages simple to avoid cognitive overload is cornerstone in maintaining your users' attention.
  • And finally, having a basic knowledge of reading patterns and how to use visual cues will aid in driving more users towards your digital funnels.

Some homework ;-)

I'm going to give you a super fun and helpful exercise. I would like you to select a funnel. Pick your favorite, it can be an ad, leading to a landing page, then to a form, and on to a confirmation page. Make sure you go through the whole journey.

Then look at your chosen customer journey both on desktop and mobile. I want to emphasize that it's important to do because one of the things that's really interesting psychology and motivation-wise is the different experiences on desktop and mobile. Some of them can work very well on one and absolutely fail on the other one. Sometimes you have to fundamentally change the entire offer on mobile because it's just not possible to do.

Then leave it for an hour and come back and go through your notes. I say leave it for an hour because that will rinse your mind a little bit. Now go back and go through your notes. Compare desktop and mobile notes. Were there any differences? Were there any steps or elements that made you feel distrust? Were there any steps or elements that made you feel curious or excited? Did the overall funnel experience impact your perception of the source?

Finally, based on this exercise what changes would you suggest to make the funnel experience better? You now have a high-level brief that's an initial creative kick-off process.

You're welcome to share some of your stuff if you want to interact and ask questions.