by Kathy Sierra
When you want to get - and especially keep - someone's attention, what's your competition? What else could they choose to focus on at any given moment? The belief that we have 100% conscious control over what we pay attention to is a myth. The belief that users can and will choose to pay attention to our message/ad/docs/product/lesson, etc. is a mistake.
Image credit: Slavoljub Pantelic
So what can we do to up the odds of getting and keeping attention?
I just returned from two weekends of intense horse/human training, including the annual Parelli conference, and you'll just have to suffer through several posts in which I map everything into some all-I-needed-to-know-I-learned-from-my-horse principle.
Starting with this post. At the first clinic, master trainer David Lichman said of our horse-human relationships:
"The secret is to be more provocative and interesting than anything else in their environment".
If we want our users (members, guests, students, potential customers, kids, co-workers, etc.) to pay attention, we have to be provocative. We can moan all we want about how the responsible person should pay attention to what's important rather than what's compelling. But it's not about responsibility or maturity. It's not even about interest.
It's about the brain.
Remember: the brain and the conscious mind don't always see neuron-to-neuron. The brain pays attention to survival of the species. No matter what the mind wants! If you want the mind's attention, you can't ignore the brain. In other words, you can't assume that users will pay attention to what you say even when they're genuinely interested. Unless, that is, you throw a bone to the brain as well. Or trick it.
So this isn't about having to bribe people into paying attention by sexing things up with graphics, sound, or shock.
This is about helping the mind and the brain agree on what's worth paying attention to. And if you want it to be you, then you better be the most provocative and interesting thing in their environment.
With horses, there's not as much competition. There's no HorseBox 360 or PonyMail, no Horse 2.0, no PonyMeme. Yet it's still a battle to be more compelling than the grass, the wind, a plastic bag, other horses (especially), playing the whoever-moves-their-feet-first-loses game with me, etc. And as smart and complex as my [fabulous Icelandic] horses are, they're still way easier to interest than a human.
Provocation is in the eye of the provoked, obviously, so there's no clear formula. But there's plenty we can try, depending on the circumstances, including:
Pictures are more important to the brain than words, and unless you've already got their attention and are a good enough writer to paint pictures in their head, you'll do better with visuals. The more stimulating the better. Even graphs and charts are a huge help... it doesn't have to be pictures of naked women (although that would work, of course). Just try to get past a rack of men's magazines (without the "protective covers") without at least a glance. Your brain can't help it, so let yourself off the hook ; )
As long as we're doing what everyone else is doing (or what we have always done), the brain can relax and think, "Nothing new here... whew... what a relief, that means I can now go back to scanning for something that is". Ways to be different include doing the opposite of what you normally do, or doing something expected in a different domain, but which is wildly unique in yours.
You know the story on this one--being safe is often incompatible with being provocative.
This is about continually breaking your own patterns. Consistently shaking things up whether it's look and feel of your website to the product itself. (Obviously the definition of "regularly" and "things" varies dramatically depending on the type of product or service. MySpace can change daily to the delight of its core audience, while a financial app better keep its UI stable for a much longer time and find something else to change regularly (like the website, tutorial style, or online forums).
Humans often find puzzles and even questions irresistible. Just try to walk by a TV playing a quiz show and not think about the answer to the question you heard walking by. How many times have you watched to the end of a movie you didn't particularly like, just because you had to find out how the story ends? Our legacy brains love curiosity because it usually means more learning. (FYI: my horse finds orange traffic cones irresistible).
The level and nature of the challenge work only if they're within boundaries that work for your audience, of course. Ask me to solve a calculus problem and I'll keep on walking. Ask my co-author Bert Bates, and he'll find it impossible to do anything else but work on it.
Take a stand. Mediocrity is not a formula for holding attention.
Remember, brains love fun because fun=play, and play=practicing-to-survive. (And as we've said many times here, fun does not have to mean funny. Chess can be fun but isn't funny. Except when I play.)
Keep in mind that seduction does not have to mean sexual. A good storyteller can seduce me into sticking with the story. A good teacher can seduce me into learning. A good software app can seduce me into getting better and better.
This gets back to the notion of being-better-is-better. The more your users know and can do, the higher resolution experience they have. Whatever you can do to give them more expertise will help keep them interested in wanting to know and do more. But they need to be up the skill curve a ways before this really kicks in, so we must do whatever we can to help get new users past the rough spots (i.e. the "suck threshold").
About the author
Photo credit: Roger Cadenhead - Workbench
Kathy Sierra is the coauthor of Head First Java and Head First EJB. She has been interested in learning theory since her days as a game developer. More recently, she's been a master trainer for Sun Microsystems, teaching Sun's java instructors how to teach the latest technologies to customers. Her current gig, along with her partner Bert Bates, is developing and producing the bizarre new Head First series of books for O'Reilly. She's also the original founder of javaranch.com, which came dangerously close to winning a Jolt Cola award last year, but had to settle for the computer equivalent of being the Miss America runner-up (winning the Software Development Magazine Productivity Award instead).Kathy Sierra -