Are Visitors Seeing Your Top Tasks?

In this issue

Our team was reviewing some web usability testing videos recently, and across many different projects, we heard a familiar refrain from the participants as they attempted tasks on web sites: “I didn’t SEE that!” Off in the background, the designers were trying to direct the participants to the next step in the task process by shouting – luckily unheard by the participants – “It’s right there!”

The usability test participants were attempting the top tasks for those sites. Sometimes the tasks were needlessly complex – they required the person to pay a lot of attention and to keep track of a number of things during the process. In this article, we’ll talk about the demands of complex web tasks, and the consequences of those demands. Before you read on, get the feel of performing a complex task in the video test below:

In this article, we’ll focus on some reasons why this happens — why people often don’t see something that is right in front of them. In previous articles, we’ve addressed some of the factors that can make things more visible — how not to hide the links from your web visitors and how to use the centre of the page to prevent right and left-side blindness on web pages.

Reason #1 — the brain has limited attention capacity. Did you see the moonwalking bear in the awareness test video? In a famous experiment conducted by Simons and Chabris (1999), fully half of the participants saw a similar video and didn’t notice the gorilla walking through, even when they were asked if they noticed anything unusual. This effect is called inattentional blindness. The experiments demonstrate the human brain’s limited capacity for attention — the likelihood of inattentional blindness occurring increases with the task complexity. When our attention is focused on a task (like say, buying something on the web, or trying to find a form on the intranet), we can become blind to what is passing in front of our eyes, particularly if it’s unexpected.

Reason #2 — what is obvious to the web team may be unexpected to users. Now imagine your web design team. They suffer from acute awareness. Everyone involved in the web design project knows what content is important. In fact, they also know what it is they want users to do, so they are more acutely aware of the design components that work towards that end – their moonwalking bear. In effect, because they know the moonwalking bear is there, they can no longer see what the video looks like to someone who isn’t expecting it. Try watching the video for a second time without seeing the bear!

Reason #3 — web teams may not observe users in action. Testing designs with real users is the way to discover inattentional blindness. The design team won’t believe people don’t see their beloved moonwalking bear until they see the videos of the participants. They’ll see them miss the bear, and struggle to perform a key task on the site. It will become clear to the team that their site visitors’ attention capacity is strained. They’ll see that to be successful, they need to reduce the demands on that capacity and/or reduce the complexity of the task itself.

Reason #4 — navigational links and menus may be diverting user attention. Decluttering is one of the best ways to reduce those attentional demands. Focus on the top tasks and reduce all of the other clutter. If people aren’t seeing the moonwalking bear on your site, then it might be part of the clutter! Or if your moonwalking bear actually is a step in a top task, then change the design (e.g. simplify the task, make the bear stop dancing, remove the images, use the right words). Since most organizations also have limited attentional capacity, keeping the team’s attention on the ‘long neck’ of top tasks is a great website management strategy.

Are visitors to your sites failing to ‘see’ your important links? Talk to us about an expert review or usability testing to identify whether your site has any moonwalking bears! Call 1-866 322 8522 or email us.

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Quote of the month


“By taking for granted that unexpected events will be seen, people often are not as vigilant as they could be in actively anticipating such events.”

Daniel J. Simons



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