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Why web designers should watch out for a woman in a gorilla suit

Published on December 17, 2008
Tags: Usability

Most good web designers already know the principles of good design, usability and which areas of a page will get the most attention. But how many give consideration to the woman in the gorilla suit?

For those of you that have watched Brainiac on the Discovery Channel, or can go back further to the study by Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois and Christopher Chabris of Harvard University you'll probably already know what I'm talking about. For everyone else, here's the quick recap;

A study was conducted whereby subjects watched a short video of two groups of people passing a basketball around. The subjects were told to count the number of passes made between the groups. During the video, a woman wearing a full gorilla suit walks through the scene, stops in the middle, faces the camera, beats her chest and then walks off. You'd think that's something you couldn't miss, right? Wrong. 50% of the subjects didn't see her at all because her presence wasn't expected and the focus of attention was elsewhere (counting the basketball passes). Arien Mack and Irvin Rock coined this phenomenon as inattentional blindness.

Wikipedia defines inattentional blindness as follows:

'... humans have a limited capacity for attention which thus limits the amount of information processed at any particular time. Any otherwise salient feature within the visual field will not be observed if not processed by attention.'

What's the relevance to web design? Hopefully, that's already becoming clear. When a site visitor reaches a web site they may well have an expectation of what they will find. It might be an expectation with respect to where they find the navigation on the page, or where they expect to find some particular information or product. Their expectation will likely be the focus of their attention. And if that expectation isn't met then they could well just move on to the next site - not ideal if your web site is meant to be generating you income.

Anyone involved in the design of a web site therefore needs to take care. Creating something 'out of the ordinary' in design terms might look wonderfully contemporary but if your visitor is expecting to find a left-aligned menu bar and instead the navigation is a small box in the right hand corner of the screen (OK - I'm being extreme to make the point) then that may be an instant block to them considering the site further. Why? Because their focus of attention is expecting the menu to be on the left hand side and if it's not then they simply may not see it anywhere else.

Let's face it - how many times have you visited a web site and couldn't find something even when it was practically right in front of your eyes. I know I have and I spend 12 hours a day on the Internet!

Similarly, overloading a page with content, graphics and links without consideration to visitors' thought processes will have a similarly negative effect. Consider if they are focused on finding 'Bed Socks' and on your site you have lots of text, graphics and links - one of which states 'Keeping your feet warm at night' that takes the visitor to a page on bed socks. How many mental steps does the visitor need to go through to find that link? First, they have to move their attention away from 'bed socks' to the problem - 'Why do I want bed socks? Because I've got cold feet in bed'. If they don't manage that shift, and because their focus of attention is honed in on 'bed socks' they may not even see your link. If they do make that attention shift to the problem, then they need to move to think about the solution to the problem - 'How can I keep my feet warm at night'. Then, finally they can search the page, might find the link and click on it. That's a long process and they might just give up trying. This particular problem might easily have been solved with a link 'Bed socks to keep your feet warm at night'.

I'm not for one moment saying that we should go out and created cloned web sites that are all the same. Simply, that we need to give due consideration to our visitors' focus of attention; that we must gear the sites we design to be as simple and straightforward as possible, with information laid out and presented in such a way that it is clear, consistent, unambiguous and able to match well with that focus.

By Chelsey Evans

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