We’re now online all the time, sometimes using a couple of devices at once, and want information right away. We don’t tolerate buffering when watching a video, and are used to same-day delivery when ordering online. If we can’t find what we’re looking for in an instant, we leave.

A lot of apps use live streaming and real-time features to take account of this changing user behavior. Conversational interfaces and chatbots let businesses have a ton of simultaneous one-on-one conversations with their customers, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to cut through the noise. We need to optimize our services to deliver value for users earlier, faster, and more clearly to stand out in a world of distractions.

So, how do we do this? We talked to UX researcher Victor Yocco, author of Design for the Mind: Seven Psychological Principles of Persuasive Design, to find out.

What do we expect from our digital products nowadays and how is our attitude towards them changing?

People expect digital products will pre-emptively meet their needs. This means everything from surfacing relevant information in the context of where a user is physically or online, to proactively alerting users to important information based on preferences and observed behavior. Our attitude has become that our products should know us and accommodate our needs without much training or effort.

How long have you got to grab your users’ attention, then?

Less than a second. Realistically, you need to show value on the first use, or you will lose to your competition.

How do you design for today’s short attention span?

Clear the clutter. Provide users with contextual experiences that present them with critical actions and information. Surface usable and useful insights. Take all that data you have on your users and do something with it. 

Most importantly, engage your users in the process. User experience requires user research. If you aren’t basing your product on a true need and collecting and addressing regular feedback from users, you aren’t going to succeed. Anything else is guessing.

When you declutter a website, how do you decide which elements are unnecessary?

Again, I’d default to conducting research with users to determine specific steps. I’d also use analytics to determine which elements are not being used as frequently. As a shorthand, I’d say I’d want to highlight the actions I want users to take — whether it’s learning more about a topic or engaging in a specific behavior, you want your site to be unambiguous to users.

Once you have your users’ attention, what kind of psychological principles can you apply to make sure they stick around, have a positive experience, and browse, or even buy?

There are a number of principles we can incorporate to help keep our users around and do the things they’d like. Gamification is one way. People love to earn things, make progress through a task, and compare their stats with others, although this has become controversial. Netflix recently went back on a decision to add a feature where kids would earn badges for the shows they watched. The backlash was deserved. We shouldn’t be using psychology to convince kids to spend more time watching TV. So make sure your product is something people should be spending time on.

Another psychological principle we can incorporate into our design is to have users provide some amount of information, and then progressively ask them for more over time. This leads to a feeling of investment that will make it harder for users to go to another product. For example, if I’ve uploaded and tagged all of my photos to your site, it will take a lot for one of your competitors to convince me I should spend that amount of time doing the same thing using their product.

 “Design for the Mind” teaches web designers and developers how to create sites and applications that appeal to our innate natural responses as humans.
“Design for the Mind” teaches web designers and developers how to create sites and applications that appeal to our innate natural responses as humans.

What are the biggest user onboarding mistakes, and how do you avoid them?

Asking users for everything upfront — don’t do that. Many people signing up to use a product or service are using a mobile device. They won’t have access, time, or desire to give you a ton of information. Allow users to start an experience and come back to give more information later.

Don’t assume someone will read the tutorial or let the on-screen help guide their actions. Most people are going to skip all the information you’ve provided for them. Your product needs to be inherently usable or folks won’t take long to figure it out. Research, including usability testing, will help you figure this out.

What kind of services grab and hold a user’s attention really well?

It depends why you want to hold a user’s attention. Some insurance sites create a good experience when people are looking for quotes. They ask a few simple questions, and are able to generate a quote that is accurate enough for a user to determine if they might be interested in providing more detailed information to get a full quote and become a customer.

I can also think of a number of travel sites that have minimum information required to create an account. Once you do, and you start searching for destinations, they surface that information when you return and present you with the ability to filter based on useful criteria. The barrier between starting and finding relevant information is very low.