The battle for digital attention span


Information overload and attention span are the fiercest of natural enemies.

While information growth has no boundaries, attention span has temporal limitations that can’t be adjusted. One grows exponentially with absolutely no possibility of slowing down while the other is coming in shorter and shorter supply.

Needless to say this creates tremendous challenges for digital content creators.

Since significantly increasing viewing time is incredibly difficult, many content creators are trying to stuff more and material into the space where the eyeballs are already going. Case in point is the growth of the chyron, the mostly text-based graphics and captions that often occupy the lower third of a television screen.

The chyron is the perfect example of battling limited attention span with even MORE information within the delivery module. We see this on virtually every news broadcast where the text scrolls on the bottom of the video screen updating the viewer on additional news, sports and weather as the talking head is presenting other news, sports and weather.

The theory is that the feed discourages the audience from changing the channel to see news that they may be missing on another channel.  This is the information consumption version of being able to play two different tunes on a piano — one with each hand. From an attention point of view it’s not much different than texting and driving albeit without the same risk factor.

The last analogy brings up an additional challenge in that research shows that people are increasingly looking at two or more screens at any one time. So in addition to the television broadcast and the chyrons therein, the typical viewer is quite likely holding a mobile phone to check emails and see how many likes they got on their last Facebook post.

According to recent Google research 81% of respondents use their mobile device and television simultaneously for content consumption. While to some this percentage may sound high, to others who have children of mobile device ownership age, they may consider it low!

So, in theory, even if information load and attention span stayed the same, the sheer amount of that information appearing on a screen will continue to increase exponentially — simply to keep the reader/viewer from jumping to a competitive information source.

So how do content and design architects balance the need for more content feeds in one place without making the users eyes glaze over? My experience is that this challenge is not limited to typical content sites or television screens. Many tech pros know this is a challenge when developing dashboards that provide feeds to their constituents in various aspects of the business.

The key to balancing information overload in design is to determine which pieces of information require immediacy and which can just as easily be served by a link. This might sound like a blinding glimpse of the obvious, but the devil is in the execution. Cable news obviously has a different challenge since there is no way to click for the next level of information needed, so stock feeds and late breaking chyrons are typical.

But despite the sheer volume of information available in most industries, I’ve actually noticed that there is a movement toward much greater simplicity rather than making a site or dashboard look like the side of a NASCAR race car.

Personal experience tells me simplicity is not easy when there are a variety content developers and owners that look for evidence of their efforts on a web site. I know that I’ve been one of the “hey where’s all my content ?” complainers. This is why independent eyeballs with an information architecture and design sense are necessary to avoid clutter, user difficulty and, consequently, a web site with a high bounce rate.

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