Few websites are designed with bad intentions. If the designer or stakeholders care about the project you can be sure every element on the page has been analyzed, reviewed and tweaked. This sounds obvious, but it should be disconcerting. Let me explain further. If most websites have had thought and care put into them, why are there so many under performing websites? To illustrate, one of the first tasks I have my students perform is analyzing the effectiveness of “big brand” websites. These websites have hundreds of thousands of dollars put into them and often years of planning by large groups of people. Despite the care, attention and effort put forth, half of the students will say any given website is a failure.
One could argue it’s the fault of uninformed stakeholders, design by comity, or simply bad designers… but I think there is a bigger problem. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of cognitive psychology. If you don’t understand how users interpret what they see you can’t be an effective designer. This is harder than it sounds however, because you can’t use logic and rational. Logic and rational only work if people behave based on logic and reason… but they don’t. The last five years of cognitive research has concluded most people don’t really know why they behave the way they do. Their mind justifies behavior using logic even though logic isn’t what’s used for decision making.
Many design failures are caused by this misunderstanding, the most damaging (in my opinion) is designing without consideration for selective disregard.
What is Selective Disregard
The web has historically been plagued with designs that attempt to cram too much information into too little space. The cause is often traced to misconceptions of “more is better” or “design by committee” where every department needs representation. Regardless, users have been forced to cope with overwhelming websites since their first experiences online.
Savvy users learn how to turn off images, eliminate ads, or simply avoid overwhelming websites. Average users have learned to instinctively ignore what they consider irrelevant. This behavior is known as selective disregard.
Banners were the first prevalent example of selective disregard. As the web gained popularity in the late nineties, more websites supplemented income by displaying narrow horizontal advertisements across the top of their page. Online advertising was new, both in customer base and targeting methods, so the quality of the advertisements was mediocre at best. The banners often distracted users, slowing them down and disrupting productivity. Over time users adapted, ignoring anything banner-shaped (hence the term “banner blindness”).
Banners are easy to ignore because they have easily identifiable patterns including shape, location, and behavior. With experience, users expand their disregard from what is obviously irrelevant, to everything but the immediately relevant.
Selective disregard operates via peripheral vision, similar to how we navigate the world. If you were to walk down a busy street, you would probably see and forget a handful of street signs. Those signs enter your peripheral vision but are subconsciously ignored because they’re deemed unimportant or familiar. If something flagged important or unfamiliar enters your peripheral vision, you subconsciously shift your attention to it.
Websites are browsed in the same fashion. When something enters your peripheral vision and is identified as relevant, focus is shifted to it. Everything else is ignored completely; users are unaware they saw anything beyond what they subconsciously deemed relevant.
People make quick, subconscious assessments as to the relevance of what’s in their field of vision. For a given task, most web pages have more unrelated content than related. To maximize productivity, users ignore everything not labeled “relevant” by the brain.The more on a page, the more users must ignore. Processing everything on a cluttered page is cumbersome and unnecessary to complete most tasks. A page with few elements takes little effort to analyze, so users typically do so with ease, which in turn allows them to complete the task at hand as it was intended by the designer.
A common, but ineffective technique used to battle selective disregard is the application of emphasis. Rather than remove unimportant elements, designers further emphasize important ones. In doing so, they actually make the page more cluttered. With more emphasis there is more demanding the users attention and more they must ignore. If a user deems an element unnecessary they will likely ignore it regardless of emphasis.
Let’s say you were on the Apple website looking for information on the iPod shuffle. The iPod section of the website has 10+ separate elements about various different types of iPods available for purchase. The most emphasized is the iPod touch, with very little screen real estate is dedicated to the shuffle.
Since your task is to find information on the iPod shuffle, while you will technically see most of the elements on the page but you will only process a few of them. It would take too much time to focus on, analyze and interpret each of the ten separate elements. Instead you will notice them through your peripheral vision and filter out anything that doesn’t look like or say “iPod Shuffle.” It doesn’t matter the iPod touch area is extremely large, users who are uninterested in that product will ignore it. Even those who look directly at it will forget the details of the area moments later.
There is little that can be done to prevent selective disregard. It’s a behavioral byproduct of the information age. However, you can understand and manage it.
Managing Selective Disregard
If nothing else, refrain from including anything that resembles a banner, as you can be sure users will ignore it. More importantly, remove any unnecessary elements. With a minimal site, users can easily analyze and digest everything presented to them.
Further, resist the temptation to over emphasize elements to grab the users attention. While some amount of emphasis is key to good design, don’t force it. If you have a strong information hierarchy the user should be able to discover key elements relevant to them on their own. Instead, make sure key areas have adequate emphasis and are well-defined. For example, areas within a sidebar should have easily identifiable headings. That way a user can subconsciously ignore the section when irrelevant, or focus on it when relevant.
If you navigated to the Zappos website looking to purchase some mens shoes you would undoubtedly ignore the large image in the center of the page depicting a woman’s swimsuit. Your peripheral vision would likely spot several key areas relevant to your task, specifically the “Mens” navigation headings and anything related to “Shoes.” The over emphasized swimsuit pictures would just get ignored despite their size.
Zappos is a well designed site and their one large call out area is not damaging the experience of the site. The key takeaway is not to avoid emphasis, rather understand the limitations of emphasis. When over used as a way to combat selective disregard you actually make the phenomenon worse. Instead, first limit what ends up on the page to the bare essentials. Then use emphasis selectively and carefully while understanding the limitations of its effectiveness.
Design without consideration of selective disregard is one mistake out of many caused by a misunderstanding of human behavior. I have said it in the past and I will say it again, great designers are as much scientists as artists. If you are being hired to design something that hopes to get tangible results you need to understand how your decisions impact the way people interacting with your work behave.
This post was adapted from my upcoming book, “The Six Layers of Design.” The book is stuffed with many lessons on the relation between cognitive psychology and design. If you enjoyed it, please sign up for the e-mail newsletter so I can let you know when the book is available. I haven’t sent out a single newsletter yet, so you don’t need to worry about spam.