Evidence They Really DON’T Read the Instructions

Posted on January 23, 2016 by Lisa

Chart of Attention Filter Failure Rates [1]

In my hundreds of hours of usability testing, I’ve seen many people say “Blah blah blah” as they skip over blocks of prose on a web page, particularly instructions essential to solving the task at hand.  In my previous post, I wrote about how people skip over stock photos – in this post, the focus is on text. It’s inspired by a new book by a leading behavioural economist – Shlomo Benartzi.

The book: ‘The Smarter Screen: Surprising Ways to Influence and Improve Online Behavior’

The book describes an important study that highlights the different attention levels people bring to reading on screens versus paper. Oppenheimer, Meyvis and Davidenko [2] designed their 2009 study around an attention filter they used in separate paper and computer experiments with hundreds of students. The study experiments all began with a paragraph of instructions. One of the last instructions advised the participant to skip the following survey question. To pass the attention filter, the participant read the instructions and skipped the question. If they skipped reading & answered the question, they failed the filter.

  • Pen and paper: From 14% to 29% of the participants failed the attention filter on the paper version, but many did read the instructions
  • Computer version: 35% to 46% failed the filter – they skipped over the instructions and went straight into action and answered the question

The study showed that people are almost twice as likely to miss key instructions on a screen versus paper test.

They skip the ‘blah blah blah’  & just do it

Oppenheimer’s study wasn’t even designed to test the difference between using the screener on paper versus on the screen. In fact,their goal was to screen oupeople who pay less attention to improve the power of experimental data from computer-based experiments. Benartzi uses these results, along with others, to craft a story around how our limited attention capabilities on screens impact the apps and sites we use, and their value to us.

The takeaway: an evidence-based approach requires that web tasks be designed differently than the paper versions.

Our articles at Neo Insight and those of Gerry McGovern have often highlighted the sharp task focus needed on the web. To combat the lack of attention to reading, reduce the text and links on the screen down to the bare essentials. Above all else, avoid instructions before the task. Design interactive tasks that reveal small amounts of text at the right time, based on the person’s needs.  Benartzi summarizes this approach as ‘less is more’:

“We should also be more willing to leave information out. One of the fundamental insights of sites such as Expedia and Booking.com is that less is often more…”-Benartzi, The Smarter Screen

Still paying attention?  More reading & sources:

URLs in this post:

[1] Image: http://neoinsight.com/components/com_wordpress/wp/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Oppenheimer-2009-Filter-Results.png

[2]  Oppenheimer, Meyvis and Davidenko: http://peoplescience.org/sites/default/files/OppenheimerMeyvisDavidenko.2009.pdf

[3] The Smarter Screen: Surprising Ways to Influence and Improve Online Behavior: http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/318133/the-smarter-screen-by-shlomo-benartzi-with-jonah-lehrer/9781591847861/

[4] Negative Priming – Why Stock Photos Harm Conversions: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/negative-priming-why-stock-photos-reduce-conversions-lisa-fast?trk=mp-author-card

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