Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The cause and effect of short attention spans

  • 80% of the readers of this article will not read further than 3 sentences! They'll quickly scroll through the page, look for interesting pictures, and then move on.
  • Have you noticed that you normally spend more time on a Wikipedia page than other pages - even if they had the same content?
  • Do you find it painful to read through the snippets and page titles beyond the top 3 search results?
  • Do you recall the earlier days of the Internet, when you started with a directory, and spent hours clicking through the listings, reading through the articles, digesting the information available?
  • What happened? Were you not able to read a book for hours? Were you not able to sit in examination halls for 2 hours or more? Why and what in the Internet changed you?

The attention span of the average Internet user is now on the order of nine seconds per page. An entire industry of Search Engine Optimization thrives to get pages within the top 3 results in a search engine - lest the content gets lost in oblivion. Information architects suggest page layouts and designs that consider visitors with short attention span, and try to trap them to stay longer.

Comprehensive usability research by Weinrich et. al. suggests:

"Our results confirm that browsing is a rapidly interactive activity. Even new pages with plentiful information and many links are regularly viewed only for a brief period – an interesting background for Web designers, who could focus on offering concise pages that load fast. The analysis of link click positions shows that users scroll regularly – even on navigation pages. Still, about 45% of selected links reside in the upper left quarter of the browser window."


A short answer, for the attention span challenged.

Search. Information overload. No quality guarantees. Caution. Skim reading. Short attention spans.

For the few others:

Search: Before search engines took over our lives, the only way we could remember extremely good resources on the web was to list them out on our home pages, or on directory listings. Thus a mass movement of listings in directories started. Personal home pages had lists of good sites. Netscape started its directory service (which became the Open Directory Project). Yahoo published and curated a set of links about everything. In such a world, being linked to was great. If a page was linked to by several pages, it was surely worth something. Search engines exploited this - first by simple in-degree counts, then by hubs and authorities, followed by page rank. A search engine made it easy to try out some keywords, and quickly browse to a page. If that was not the page you wanted, you'd come back, move to the next link, try something else and test your luck. Gone was paradigm of contextual recommendations the listings had. People were on their own - and had to determine a link's relevance on their own. Search engines took over the world so much that people stopped creating those wonderful lists. This implied a degradation in quality of the search results. This implied a higher responsibility on the web searcher to choose what's relevant.

Information overload: With a search engine, any page is just a search away. (especially if some one types that unique set of words which will qualify any page). This suddenly provided a great incentive for people to publish more content, especially with blogging software around. More content came through. More results appeared on search engines. The web searcher had to choose what's good for him.

No quality guarantees: Every page comes with its own layout, content, writing style, and information. Unlike your schooling days, when you'd be recommended a text book, and you knew to expect some standard, the web is full of free information, that makes no quality assurances. With in months of using a search engine, we all realized that we have to put in the due diligence and evaluate individual pages.

Caution: Web pages are unlike books. They have ads, navigation links, logos, banners, and pictures, with text left to fill up the empty spaces. It takes quite some visual effort to identify this area in each page, and then to judge the content for its utility. Hence, when users find an unfamiliar page, they get cautious! Slowly, users have started training themselves to figure ways to identify a page with worthy content. Wikipedia. New York Times. BBC. About.com. Not only can I expect some basic standard in the content here, I am also familiar with the visual layouts of those sites - having been a returning visitor. For everything else, I do skim reading.

Skim reading: Quoting wikipedia, "Skimming is a process of speed reading that involves visually searching the sentences of a page for clues to meaning. For some people, this comes naturally, and usually can not be acquired by practice. Skimming is usually seen more in adults than in children. It is conducted at a higher rate (700 words per minute and above) than normal reading for comprehension (around 200-230 wpm), and results in lower comprehension rates, especially with information-rich reading material.
Another form of skimming is that commonly employed by readers on the Web. This involves skipping over text that is less interesting or relevant. This form of reading is not new but has become increasingly prevalent due to the ease with which alternative information can be accessed online."

Short attention spans: The shortened attention span on the Internet is not a disorder, but a human reaction to the abundance of low quality content online, which requires weeding and mining. However, there's a danger of continued short attention spans crossing over to real life.


  1. Liked the observation of being cautious & why.

  2. I read the whole article! I guess I don't need to say more :-)

  3. I am commenting as the 80% that has not read the article yet :) But will read it later....

  4. This is the root of an increasing shift towards "Short Buffer" learning in the Human Ape. From the thousands of words in middle ages handwritten vellum books, to 140 characters. I think the human ape will get even more short buffer with time, when images become a bigger vehicle for communication than words.

  5. The stats may be wrong with your argument. Before the printing press, in the han written times, the number of producers (of written material) were very small, probably comparable to the number of consumers. With the printing press, the producers increased, but the consumers increased even further. With the Internet, we saw a bigger increase in producers. The consumers probably remained the same (assuming every Internet user would have read books otherwise). Now with twitter and facebook, the number of producers is going through the roof. All this means there's information overload, but does nt mean the human ape is taking over, and we will stop to produce big books.