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The Science of Capturing User Attention

Think of the first thing you want a user to say when they click into your website.

Chances are, your answer was something like – “Wow!” “Interesting!” or even the classic “Oooooh…”

If you answered something like – “I really trust this company,” or “I think I’ll buy a product” you’ve gotten way ahead of yourself. You’ve moved on to the middle or the last step in engaging your users, and right past the crucial first step, attracting their attention. Without efforts to hold user attention, your website’s visitors aren’t going to make it to the decision whether to trust your business, and have practically zero chance of even seeing your product or service offerings.

In order to get to that stage of the game, you need to capture and hold user attention, and the best way to do that is by crafting a website that does the job for you. How to craft that website, has been the subject of much discussion, and just so happens to be the subject of this article.

What Is Attention?

The first step in figuring out how to capture attention is to take a thorough look at what, exactly, it is.

The dictionary definition of attention is:

“The notice an individual takes of someone or something else; the decision that something or someone is important and/or interesting.”

That definition is unsatisfactory when we’re discussing the topic in depth, however – after all, years even decades of work has gone into cognitive psychologists’ study of human attention. So, let’s delve a little deeper into the concept.

Consider the environment around you – at any given moment, there are numerous visual, auditory, and other stimuli vying for processing all at once. Sometimes, like at a baseball game, your brain can meld the stimuli into one experience and process them together. Other times, you need to focus on one thing at a time, like a teacher choosing the student with the most pressing need from a herd of excited kindergarteners.

Even when you’re immersed in the experience of the baseball game, however, you can only truly focus on one thing at a time. Perhaps it’s the batter. Maybe it’s your kid in the outfield, drawing circles in the dirt with his cleats. Maybe it’s the email you’re checking on your phone, while the rest of the game goes on somewhere nearer the edges of your consciousness.

What happens when the crowd cheers? Your vision snaps back to the game, focusing on the piece of action that’s happening at the moment. Your focus – your attention – is redirected to the most pertinent thing going on once the crowd’s noise demanded your attention.

Our ancient ancestors learned very quickly that identifying which stimuli were deserving of their attention was crucial to survival – after all, the first step in evading a threat is identifying one exists in the first place. Neuroscientists believe that, over time, people developed the parts of the brain – the visual cortex, specifically, the preattention area – that wade through the stimuli and identify the things that deserve our attention.

How Is This Applicable to Your Business?

There are six different visual stimuli that engage with the preattention areas of the visual cortex and draw human attention. We’ll briefly describe each and suggest some ways you can incorporate these into your website design in an effort to make your site one that captures the attention of your users.

1. Salience

Salience is described as something that makes an element within an environment even more noticeable or important. Three primary elements affect visual salience – color, orientation, and size.

Color makes one object stand out from a sea of others – consider how an ancient human would need to be able to notice a colorful piece of fruit among a field of greenery. In the same way, you could direct user attention to the most important elements of your website by choosing a color that stands out from the others.

Changes in orientation and size also act as a method of highlighting a feature among many others, much in the same way our ancestors noticed the largest fruit on a tree in a sea of others. You could consider using larger text or image size for the most important features on your site.

2. Motion

Using video or animated motion is one of the key ways designers draw attention to important features, much like ancient humans noticed motion in the bushes to identify a threat.

The inclusion of motion on your website is an important attention-getter and the 90% of people that say video helps them make buying decisions would agree. The 200% increase in video ad spend between 2015 and 2018 is evidence.

3. People or Animals

Biologically, we’re trained to notice human and animal forms against a non-human background. Scientifically speaking, that’s because we once needed to identify predators and potential mates.

Nowadays, you can capitalize on this to make your website more attention-grabbing. Using human or animal forms can help draw and keep user attention. Keep in mind that faces and bodies, when combined, catch attention even better than either element alone.

4. Spatial Cues

Our ancient (and even not-so-ancient) ancestors needed to be able to identify dominant individuals so they could recognize who to seek protection from when times were rough, and who to avoid when competing for resources.

Modern spatial cues on your website exist in a slightly different manner, but their purpose remains the same – to direct human attention in a specific direction for pertinent information.

If you show the humans and animals on your website directing their eye gaze or pointing a finger at the most important information or product on your page, chances are, your users will, too. In the same way, arrows and other graphics can successfully get user attention in the places you want it most.

5. Emotions

Certain elements, such as colors associated with danger, the shape of a predator, and negative human facial expressions incited emotion in the earliest humans. Those emotions were fear, nervous arousal, and other emotions that quickly led to action.

You may not want to include natural predators in your website design – though companies like Spyder have been doing so for years. However, consider using colors that suggest energy, if that’s your brand’s focus, and take your website’s overall emotional impact on the user into account.

6. Novelty

Often misunderstood as a term describing fun, useless items, novelty is really just about noticing the unusual.

Our ancestors were trained to pay attention to the unpredictable for obvious reasons. Today, we still pay attention to the unusual. When it comes to web design, consider adding unique layouts or graphics to your web page. However, use novelty sparingly – too-frequent use is interpreted as “weird” or “unfamiliar” and can even translate as “untrustworthy.”

When designing your website, you’re not expected to use each and every suggestion listed here to make your site more attention-grabbing. However, building on a basic understanding of how our ancestors identified the things that were most worthy of their attention and incorporating these ideas that operate on primary cognitive decision-making practices, can give you some key insights into how to garner attention now. Use them wisely.

About the author


Stephen Moyers

Stephen Moyers is an out of the heart writer voicing out his take on various topics of social media, web design, mobile apps, digital marketing, entrepreneurship, startups and much more in the cutting edge digital world. He is associated with SPINX Digital a Los Angeles web design company & digital marketing agency. When he is not writing, he can be found traveling outdoors with his camera. You can follow Stephen on Twitter @StephenMoyers