Big Design 2012 Recap: The Myth of Paying Attention

I had the privilege to present at Big Design 2012 in Dallas, TX. I’ve wanted to go to Big Design since it hit the scene a few years ago as I’d heard many wonderful things from friends and peers that have gone. During my visit, I was able to meet up with old friends, find a few new ones, and eat an obscene amount of BBQ. (See picture below.) At the conferences, Russ Unger and Stephen Anderson gave two presentations that really stuck out. Russ shared the life story of the brilliant Jim Henson, while tying in lessons that designers can learn from the work that Henson did. Stephan provided some profound insight into why infographs work, and how they lead to better understanding of complex issues. All that fun and I also had the pleasure of presenting “The Myth of Paying Attention.”

Taken at Hard Eights BBQ in Dallas, TX

This particular talk is one that teaches me something new every time I prepare to give it, mostly because the science and research that is being performed on how we, humans, pay attention to the world around us is constantly growing. During this talk I mostly focus on two concepts that help describe why people have such a hard time interacting, engaging, or using digital products: Change Blindness and Selective Attention. Possessing a working knowledge of just these two concepts can help designers better plan and create digital interactions that take our inherent physical limitations into consideration. Because at the end of the day, we humans weren’t built to use many of the devices or systems we find ourselves surrounded by today.
We created them for us to use, but we failed to understand our limits.

Change blindness occurs anytime something small changes within a broader context. In the design world, this is best represented by a single widget in an overall user interface. Designers can observe their “users” running into Change Blindness when the widget is the only thing (or possibly one of very few objects) on the page that gets redesigned. Because the overall user interface is basically the same, people have a hard time noticing, and, therefore, using the newly designed widget. Not every person will have issues with the new design however, but most people will. The key here is that for many people who do have issues, it’s not necessarily the design of the widget that’s causing the problems. Rather it’s how our brains construct our reality. You can see an example of this in my slide deck posted below.

The second concept – the one that really sticks out when we observe people in the usability lab – is Selective Attention. As user experience professionals, we spend a lot of time and brainpower getting usability study task lists “just right.” This is because we don’t want to lead, or bias, the person during the study. Sadly, simply giving someone a task gives us the “power” to influence their sense of reality. This occurs because once an instruction is given, our brain naturally begins to view the world with a filter in place that helps us perform that given task. So, when the person you are observing misses the big red button, it’s not because it doesn’t stand out enough. Rather, it’s because that big red button is being filtered out because it doesn’t conform to the way the brain has interpreted the given task. Selective Attention is both the more interesting of these two concepts, but also the hardest one to deal with both during usability studies, but also when considering the end design of a digital interface.

Before encountering these two concepts, I would be baffled at how people fail at using everyday things. Observing people getting confused and being frustrated with digital products is also what drove me to become a User Experience Designer. Now that I have learned how our easily our sense of reality can be influenced, I now have a basic understanding on why this happens, and it allows me to create more appropriate conceptual designs earlier on. This knowledge also allows me to avoid issues, such as effective use of visual language, during usability studies that are due to how the human brain works rather than how overall design works.

Invisible Gorilla –
Brain Rules –
Traffic –
100 Things Designers Should Know About People –
Selective Attention –
Inattentional Blindness –


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