How to Design Products for a Distracted World

We live in a world filled with distractions. Build your products to meet users where they live.

Written by Nick Babich
Published on Feb. 23, 2022
How to Design Products for a Distracted World
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User distraction is one of the biggest challenges that designers face today. We are living in the age of information overload. With so many stimuli from so many different channels around us, the human attention span is getting shorter. In fact, a Microsoft survey of Canadian media consumption in 2015 concluded that the average attention span is eight seconds now. That statistic is grim, especially when compared to the apocryphal but enduring putative nine-second attention span of the goldfish

Given this state of affairs, designers have to adapt to this user behavior and design their products for a world riddled with distraction. Fortunately, you can use some simple principles to guide your work to serve distracted users.

5 Principles for Building Products for a Distracted World

  1. Help users get into a state of flow.
  2. Prioritize the information that users see.
  3. Ensure that re-engagement is easy.
  4. Create an omnichannel experience.
  5. Remind users about unfinished tasks.

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1. Help Users Get Into a State of Flow

Many scientists and publicists criticized Microsoft’s study because it didn’2t take a crucial factor into account — focus levels on a task that users actually want to complete. Human attention is task-dependent, and we can stay focussed on what we’re doing for much longer than eight seconds. In fact, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a Hungarian-American psychologist, created a theory of flow, which is a state of mind in which a person becomes fully immersed in an activity. When people get into a state of flow, they stop tracking time and start to enjoy interacting with a product. 

To make such a state happen, we need to create a genuinely engaging experience in our products. Gamification can help engage users when they’re interacting with a product. When using a product feels like playing a game, we’re energized by what we’re doing and become more likely to spend time with a product. Even complex activities that require a lot of attention like learning a language can be gamified.


2. Prioritize the Information That Users See

Information overload is a very typical problem in product design. You can easily overwhelm users if your app shows them too much info at each step of their journey. To overcome this problem, use the principle of chunking by breaking the information that users will see into chunks. 

One good example of this principle in action is the checkout flow in e-commerce services. When we break the checkout process into steps like cart summary, shipping information, billing details and so on, you help users to understand the information and complete the task by presenting it in smaller, comprehensible chunks. 


3. Ensure That Re-Engagement Is Easy 

Even when we create an engaging experience, we can’t account for all factors that can distract users. For example, a person might be using our product on the go (e.g., while traveling to work) and can switch to other activities at any time. Recognizing that users may leave and want to return later is a key part of designing a good product for distraction. 

It can be frustrating when a product doesn’t remember user progress. Such behavior breaks the Principle of Least Effort, which states that users prefer products that require the least amount of energy. If interacting with a product requires a lot of effort, they’re more likely to abandon it. That’s why designing the product to remember the user’s current state is so important. We need to design experience in a way that allows users to continue from exactly where they've stopped. 


4. Create an Omnichannel Experience 

Mobile devices, tablets, desktops and TVs are all mediums people use to interact with our products. So, we must allow users to start their journey on one type of device (e.g., mobile) and continue on another (e.g., desktop). Doing so will improve user control over the system, which is a fundamental property of good product design. 

For example, users tend to start an online purchase process on mobile and then switch to a desktop to finalize the purchase simply because it’s more comfortable to check shopping cart details and provide billing/shipping information on a larger screen. Facilitating this transfer through good design improves product usability.


5. Remind Users About Unfinished Tasks 

The Zeigarnik effect, named after Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, suggests that people remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed ones. When we remind users that they have an unfinished task, they can become motivated to complete the task. E-commerce services typically use this approach. If a user puts some items in their shopping cart but doesn't complete a purchase, the app will send them an email with a reminder that their cart isn’t empty. 

You have to evaluate the level of importance of tasks for users, however. For example, if the app sends users a reminder that they need to complete a task that has a relatively low value for them, they can become frustrated and abandon the product. 

Product creators typically create a notification strategy that considers various aspects from the value of the task that users want to complete to the best time of day to send a reminder.  For instance, it's best to avoid sending users notifications at weird hours like 2 a.m. We should also consider the best channel for each; use mobile push notifications for urgent things, and email channels for events with normal priority, for example. 

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Good Design Defeats Distraction

To be human is to be distracted. The ultimate goal of product design is to help people complete their tasks efficiently. By designing for distraction, we create a more positive experience and increase the chances that users will stick to our products for a longer time. 

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