Blog / Attention deficit on the web: Appeasing the hunters and gatherers

Much has been made recently about the effects of Internet usage on the brain. Reading web content, according to some, is turning us into a culture of attention deficit disorder sufferers. No longer can we read a web article from beginning to end. Too often our attention is hijacked by a link somewhere along the way.

While much of this may be unavoidable — the web after all is built on the idea of hypertext — there are things we can do as web designers and usability experts to reduce the avalanche of information and distraction on our readers.

Hunting and Gathering

One step we can take to is to rethink how we interact with websites, and particularly how we interact with pages within sites. We can break it down into two main modes of interaction: hunting and gathering.

We spend most of our time on the internet doing these two things: hunting, i.e. scanning for information, clicking on links; and gathering, i.e. stopping to consume, to read, watch a video, or write a comment. Things go pretty well when we can devote our full attention to doing one or the other. The problem with distraction arises when we find ourselves doing both at once.

Pages for hunters

Certain web pages should be designed around the idea of hunting, others around gathering. Most users come to a website homepage to hunt. You don't expect to do a lot of reading on a homepage, as you expect to find a link to what you're looking for. It may take one, or two, steps as you narrow content areas or categories. These secondary pages, or landing pages, should also be geared toward hunting; providing only as much information as is necessary to lead hunters to what they seek.

Pages for gatherers

Once the hunter has found what she's looking for, she stops to gather it all in. A page that allows her to gather all she wants without distraction will work in her favour. A page that distracts, pulling in too many directions at once, could work against her and ultimately against the website creator.

When people want to read an article, let them read the article. When they want to look for other things, let them do that, but enable them to do it in a way that makes hunting easier and gathering less distracting. Provide well-designed homepages and landing pages that help guide readers to the content they want, and then get out of their way.

There are already various tools (such as Readability) being developed to help users remove all the website navigation, sidebars and ads in order to get at the meat of the content. The goal should not be to heap information, links and blocks on users until they are driven to use these kinds of tools. Let's help them by not overwhelming them in the first place.

In my next post I'll discuss some ideas on how to design for fewer distractions.

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