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Do short attention spans affect web design?

Published on July 13, 2012
Tags: Usability, Web Design London

We can identify any number of factors that might affect web design, from the brief developed by the company in need of a website to their chosen web designer and the designer’s own preferences and ways of working. However, we can never underestimate the power of the web user when it comes to the design of websites. There is a lot of talk about how modern attention spans are shorter than they used to be, and that our expectations have risen at the same time. 
Regardless of whether or not we believe that people’s attention spans are shorter than they were before (one counter-argument runs that there is simply more to do now than there used to be, so it’s easier to get distracted), does this have an impact on web design?
In some ways, it probably does. After all, we have all read about how web users are likely to click away from a page that doesn’t load quickly, and how we need to tailor all of our web content so that users can find it as quickly as possible. This means that web designers always need to be aware of issues such as the size of graphics, which could take a long time to load, and how text is laid out in order to make sure it is as readable as possible.
Some statistics suggest that if a webpage takes more than 4 seconds to load, a quarter of people will abandon it (these are figures from America, so they might be slightly different in the UK, but they still provide an interesting insight). Also, if a mobile webpage doesn’t load within 10 seconds, it’s thought that 50% of people will abandon the page, and many of them won’t go back to it again.
We can also identify alleged attention span issues in the world of online search. According to statistics from the United States, more than 3 billion Google searches are done every day. However, Google discovered that if the search results were slowed down by just four tenths of a second, there would be 8 million fewer searches a day.
All of this suggests that short attention spans are definitely having an impact on the online world, including on web design. However, in the case of web design at least, could it not also be that rather than being solely about attention spans, designs are adapted and altered simply because it’s good practice? 
Best practice would suggest that webpages should load as quickly as possible, after all. Many websites are there for ecommerce or are otherwise linked to business, and so it is in their own best interests that they load quickly and efficiently, as well as being convenient for web users who don’t want to wait a long time for them to load. 
It’s also good sense for websites to be easy to read, and there is unlikely to be a web designer alive today who would deliberately create a website that was confusing and with hard-to-read content. We all know the importance of good quality text that is relevant and interesting; it helps our websites to rank well in the search engine results as well as being beneficial for web users.
Clear layouts are another web design element that simply makes good sense as well as being a good option just in case any users happen to have short attention spans. So, given deeper thought, one explanation could be that web users simply recognise good design when they see it.
After all, if the best websites are laid out very clearly, are interesting and engaging and it’s easy to find things on them, it makes websites that don’t fulfil that brief stand out for the wrong reasons. The quality of designs has improved dramatically in just a few short years: the bar has been raised and new standards have been set. It isn’t that difficult to see why some web users abandon certain websites after just a few seconds when there are other websites that will load straight away and give them what they want.
So perhaps there is something in the attention span theory, but it isn’t the whole story. We also need to look at the increasing quality of web design and the growing capabilities of internet devices in order to give us a clearer picture of just how design is affected today.

By Chelsey Evans

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