Selective Disregard, Why It’s Causing Your Website To Fail

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 so many underperforming 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. Despite the care, attention, and effort, half of the students will say any 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. However, this is harder than it sounds because you can’t use logic and rationale. Logic and rationality only work if people behave based on logic and reason… but they don’t. The last five years of cognitive research have concluded most people don’t 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.

This misunderstanding causes many design failures; 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 to turn off images, eliminate ads, or avoid overwhelming websites. Average users have learned to ignore what they consider irrelevant instinctively.

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 easily ignored because they have identifiable patterns, including shape, location, and behavior. With experience, users expand their disregard from what is 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 as necessary or unfamiliar enters your peripheral vision, you subconsciously focus on it.

Websites are browsed in the same fashion. When something enters your peripheral vision and is identified as relevant, the focus is shifted. Everything else is ignored completely; users are unaware they saw anything beyond what they subconsciously deemed relevant.

Browsing Behavior

People make quick, subconscious assessments of the relevance of what’s in their field of vision. Most web pages have more unrelated content than related for a given task. To maximize productivity, users ignore everything not labeled “relevant” by the brain. The more on a page, the more users must ignore it. 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, allowing them to complete the task at hand as the designer intended.

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 make the page more cluttered. With more emphasis, there is more demand for the user’s attention and more they must ignore. Users who deem an element unnecessary 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 different types of iPods available for purchase. The most emphasized is the iPod touch; with a tiny 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, you will only process a few. Focusing on, analyzing, and interpreting the ten elements would take too much time. 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 if the iPod touch area is extensive; 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 quickly analyze and digest everything.

Further, resist the temptation to over-emphasize elements to grab the user’s attention. While some emphasis is critical to good design, don’t force it. If you have a strong information hierarchy, the user should be able to discover essential elements relevant to them on their own. Instead, make sure vital 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 irrelevant section or focus on it when relevant.

If you navigated to the Zappos website to purchase some men’s 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 its one large call-out area does not damage the experience of the site. The key takeaway is not to avoid emphasis but rather to understand the limitations of emphasis. When overused to combat selective disregard, you 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.

Final Thoughts

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 repeat it: Great designers are as much scientists as artists. If you are being hired to design something that hopes to get tangible results, you must understand how your decisions impact how people interacting with your work behave.

This post was adapted from my upcoming book, “The Six Layers of Design.” The book has many lessons on the relationship 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.