Sustaining attention is often more important than product value

Why does one app get used again and again, while another doesn’t?  Most of us would say that if an application provides a great value to the user, it will be used. While value is important, applications must overcome a more subtle, and I would argue, more difficult, challenge first: they must repeatedly win our attention.

In the world of products, value is unlimited: we’re always building new valuable things. The amount of attention users can give is finite, and increasingly difficult to win.

Let’s say that you’re sitting on the couch (as I am right now), and thinking about what to do next. Our world is cluttered with options. We could surf the internet. Read the news. Play a game. Watch TV. Take a walk. Within each of these options, there is an almost infinite variety as well: Which show? Which websites to surf?[1]

Do you know what will provide the most value to you, right now? Do you spend a lot of time researching the most valuable thing you could possibly do?  I sure don’t. And, I can’t. My brain (or anyone’s brain) can’t handle the complexity.
Our minds shelter us in a myriad of ways from being overwhelmed by options – including being overwhelmed by the range of products we could use. They filter out information that seems irrelevant to the moment, so much so that we don’t see a dude in a gorilla outfit running around a basketball game. Similarly, activities fade in and out of our awareness, even though we enjoy them, even though they provide value.

In order to be used, an application must first win attention.   We have many well-documented strategies for winning user hearts, but we have few strategies for sustainably winning attention.

The first time a product is used, it can shout – it can popup in front of the user in a browser, entice the user with promises of fun and product value, hell, it can even blink.  But, with time, users adapt – they learn to ignore you, or they change their environment to avoid you (blocking the popups, filtering out annoying email messages, uninstalling the apps, etc.)

What’s a sustainable path for attention? The scientific research in this field is pretty scarce (we’re doing some at HelloWallet with a group of behavioral economists, but I haven’t seen much more out there), but here’s what I’ve gathered so far:

  1. Provide value. Absolutely, this is essential.  If your product sucks, you aren’t going to be able to grab people’s attention repeatedly (they’ll change their environment to avoid you).  So, value is the first step.  But, it’s only the first step.
  2. Uniquely become part of the person’s environment.  One way to remind people to use a product is to ensure it’s seen – the Nike FuelBand by the side of the bed or the home page on a browser.  By uniquely, I mean that there aren’t other shiny things the person is seeing at the same time; that’s a real problem with tweets, emails, etc.
  3. Uniquely become part of the person’s expected routine.  At a particular time of day (or situation), train the user to uniquely think of the application as a way to do something or relieve boredom. “Training” isn’t happenstance: ask the user to plan out a particular time to use the product (i.e. as part of implementation intentions). If you’re providing value, then help them form a habit around getting that value. That may mean displacing an existing habit, like I talked about here.
  4. Be so darn cool and memorable that people think of you on their own.   We all aspire to this, and we think that a beautiful product will make users dream about us. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen a lot of beautiful artwork in museums.  I don’t dream about them, and neither do I dream about more than a handful of products.   So, invest in other ways to get attention 😉
  5. Build strong associations with something that is part of the environment or daily routine.  If can’t get in front of users eyeballs directly or reserve a slot on their daily calendar, build on what’s already there.   Whenever I see a crisp Spring weekend day in DC, I think of the bike trailer my kid loves to riding in, and head to the garage to get it.
  6. Be useful each any every time they see you.  Don’t train the user to ignore you.  Does your carpet catch your attention?  No. It’s in your line of sight, and you step on it as part of your daily schedule. But it does nothing for you most of the time. Same thing with sending users lots of emails.  Don’t be the carpet.
  7. Be new and different each time.  One way to avoid being the carpet is to make sure that each attention grabbing content contains something new (or potential for newness) – social network notifications do this beautifully with their teaser emails about friends doing stupid stuff.  It’s more than a random reward for logging into Facebook or Twitter – the attention grabber itself is different each time.

That’s what I’ve gathered so far.   And, that’s way too much for a blog post anyway.

There’s a lot of unexplored territory around how products can sustain attention, and I look forward to hearing about the parts of it you’ve started to map out.




[1] These are just the obvious, conventional options. When we start thinking about the range of things that we could physically do, not just what’s customary, then the struggle for attention becomes even clearer.  For example, here are some non-obvious options that probably provide a lot of value: bouncing your hated old computer against the wall, skipping through the streets singing, going to the store and eating every darned thing you love. We don’t think about these things normally — because our minds mercifully filter them out so we aren’t overloaded with options.