Website visitors know what they want. They come to any of your web pages for one specific thing – often a highly specific thing. If they can’t see it immediately, they are off to another web page, in an instant. But how do your website visitors focus in on exactly what they want, when your web pages are full of so many interesting diversions and distractions? How do people see the “wood for the trees” and determine whether your web page offers exactly what they are after, in such a short space of time?
A clue is found in some remarkable new research involving probing the brains of people with epilepsy using neurosurgical techniques during which the patients were conscious. The scientists found that even in noisy environments people were able to focus in on specific sounds they wanted to hear. That’s long been known in psychology and is called the “cocktail party effect”, where you can hear someone from the other side of the room mention your name above the sound of the people closer to you. But, this amazing piece of new research found that the brain appears to actually only be aware of the sounds it wanted to hear. Indeed, further than this, the researchers were able to use the recordings they made of their patients’ brain activity and work out the actual words they were really listing to.
It appears that the individuals in this study had already decided what they wanted to listen to amongst the various conversations they could have heard. But – and this is the crucial bit – their brains only focused their hearing on the bit they wanted and only processed that. In other words, they ignored everything else going on around them not only at their conscious level, but also deep within their brain. The stuff they were not interested in was not being heard.
The research highlights one of the issues which have puzzled psychologists for decades – the way we can selectively pay attention to things. As you sit reading this, there are several other things around you to which you could pay attention, but you are focusing solely on these words. So, are you ignoring everything else around you, or are you aware of it but using your ability to focus to carry on reading this, in spite of something else going on?
This new study suggests our brains concentrate only on the material we want, to the detriment of everything else. There is clearly much more neurological research to be done, but the study implies that when we consciously choose to pay attention to something our brain helps us achieve this by ignoring everything else. And that simple process has important implications for web design.
It means, for instance, that if prior to visiting your site your visitors have thought that all they want to do is read your latest blog post, their brains will focus on exactly that – ignoring your adverts, not being aware of your sign-up forms for your newsletter, nor even considering travelling to other parts of your site perhaps.
Our brains appear to have the ability to have laser sharp attention – and that means web design must be similarly laser sharp. Looking good is not enough; focusing specifically on exactly what your website visitors have decided, in advance, what they want to do is vital for success in the instant-decision online world. It is just more evidence that one website aimed at a rather generalised target audience is simply not good enough. We need highly targeted, highly specific web pages which focus exactly on what our visitors want to pay attention to.
- ‘Cocktail party effect’ identified in the brain (newscientist.com)
- How to engage your website visitors (grahamjones.co.uk)
- Neuroscience Makes Strong Case for Engagement, Personalization in Marketing (hubspot.com)