The thought before the click: the locus of attention

This is the second in a series of fundamental user experience concepts useful for understanding people’s behaviour when using the web and mobile.

Scrabble Pieces VectorLet’s play a little game.

  1. First, think of your first name.
  2. Now, think of the last letter of your surname.

Neither of these are difficult tasks, but it takes longer to complete the second than the first. This is an illustration of the difference between conscious and unconscious thought. While your first name springs to mind immediately, you had to work a bit harder to come up with the last letter of your surname.

Meanwhile, when you were completing the tasks you had to switch your attention from this page to the task and back again. In doing this, you had to adjust what’s called your “locus of attention”.

Raskin and the humane interface

Jef Raskin and his Canon Cat, an early PC

In 2000, Jef Raskin published his book “The Humane Interface”. Raskin was an early innovator in the field of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and combined a number of scientific insights to guide his philosophies about interface design.

He proposed that human performance factors are  independent of user’s age, gender, cultural background or level of expertise. At some level, we are all human and even the most proficient user has limitations.

Shifting your locus of attention is tiring

The best designers understand these limitations, and work with them to make effective designs. One such limitation is that humans can only think one thing at a time. To move from one thought to another requires a shift of your locus of attention.

Designers therefore must consider layout, hierarchy and ordering, and the relationships between objects on the screen.

With screen-based interfaces, constantly shifting your locus of attention is tiring. And when the interface requires you to use conscious thought rather than unconscious thought, even more so.

How to honour your users’ attention

No matter how great your interface is, users are typically happier if there is less of it. The best interface is none at all.

But if there has to be an interface, users will have a less tiring and more pleasurable experience when they don’t have to learn or think about what they are doing.

By making aspects of the interface consistent and reliable, users can fall back on habits and rely on their unconscious to do the work. To understand what these current habits look like, the only answer is to get out into the field, find out and test your designs.

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