Web designing for the human attention span

The modern human attention span often gets compared to that of a gold fish, or sometimes shown to be even worse. Whether it’s true or not, one thing web designers are all too aware of is that it’s a very tricky game to keep someone’s focus.

Our attention is being grabbed from literally all corners of our viewpoint. We are so bombarded by information, images and sound that our clever brains are forced to bring up the drawbridge and only allow a certain amount of information through to our conscious or subconscious mind.
Our brain literally creates a filtered reality of the best or most useful information that we come across in our daily hectic lives – like sifting through mud to find diamonds.

Relax, just do it

Think about it. If we actually listened to every single word of every conversation, read each advert, drank in every honk and screech of the city and saw every single pixel of colour and image – we would, at the very least, need a sleeping beauty style nap.

The brain has become so good at phasing out certain parts of reality that many people are now talking about the brain taking over too much and creating chronic ‘auto-pilot mode’. A good example is when you walk, drive or bike on a route and you don’t remember the process of actually doing it because you were too lost in your own rambling mind.

Apple of mine eye

So how are websites supposed to extract people out of their thoughts long enough to actually see and engage with their information?

Our eyes aren’t just windows to the soul, they are also one of the main ways we receive information and play a crucial role in how we perceive design. Our eyes actually have a very narrow focus, and although we think we are noticing everything around us, we are actually only really seeing what is right in front of us – which is also a nice metaphor for life in general.

Translate this into web design and a user won’t be able to see the whole website at once, but will take in various elements of a website, adding them together to make up the bigger picture or overall experience.

Most sites now have their main content in the middle of the page and let the user scroll down instead of looking freely around, because they know that people tend to look slap bang in the middle of a page and then read down, like a book. Any information in the peripheral corners of the page can be the equivalent of an attention holding graveyard.

Even though our peripheral vision is poor, it does help guide our focus, is very good at picking up motion and is one of the main reasons why videos create such great engagement wherever they are on your page, especially if they run freely.

The simple life

Another consequence of our frazzled lives is that we need things to be really simple. We don’t want to spend more than 2 minutes reading most articles, we don’t want a million flashing images or adverts bombarding us with irrelevant slogans.

A user doesn’t want to search for anything, it should be handed to them on a digital plate. If they can’t find how to contact you in less than 3 clicks, they treat it like a personal scorn and will generally go back to google and start their search again, stepping over your google ranking pop up.
This is why website designers now design with a shrinking attention span in mind and typically have a ticking time bomb to contend with when it comes to users bouncing away from the site.

Something that helps keep users on websites for longer is fluid UX design, or in other words, that the user journey is tailored towards how people naturally navigate around a site and that a simple but stylish design creates focused searching or quick retrieval of information.

Branding is obviously crucial and I’m a huge believer in memorable design, but substance will always supersede image and should never be put on the backburner. A great web design effectively puts the digital footprints in place to help the user get to the pot of gold at the end of a sleekly designed rainbow.


Sara is a freelance writer based in Manchester. She owns the commercial and creative content company Fraiche Ink, focusing on think pieces and marketing content.

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