The Obvious Is Not Obvious to Everyone (and How This Affects Website Usability)

Filed under: Business Website Tips | Website Improvement

Yes, we wrote about this topic a little over a year ago, but it’s so important we wanted to get you thinking again about how this fascinating psychological concept can be negatively impacting the effectiveness of your company’s website.

Focus. It’s a juggling act to tune in to all the details of your business on any given day. Even though you’re constantly checking your schedule and to-do list, it’s easy enough to miss that one crucial meeting, think that important call was supposed to start an hour later, or realize you were supposed to follow up with Company Q, not Company Z.   We can stare at something, focus, pay attention, but still miss details and events that are constantly changing and being updated.

Interestingly, there’s a direct parallel with your website.

Did you know that when a visitor doesn’t see the changes you expect them to see it throws them off, too? Sometimes it will cause them just enough irritation that they’ll leave.

Website page elements such as status messages, error notifications, progress indicators, menu bars and shopping cart button messages are regularly, actively changing on your website’s page. Unfortunately, confusion is created for your website’s visitors when they don’t notice they change.

Why don’t people see what is right in front of them? Why don’t they see what we expect them to see?

It’s because of a fascinating psychological phenomenon called change blindness.  Change blindness is our tendency to overlook new visual details added to an existing image or scene, especially if there’s a visual interruption.

The Invisible Gorilla video illustrates the concept of change blindness. This fascinating video is based on a Harvard University study where observers are told to count the number of basketball passes among team members dressed in white shirts who are playing against those in black shirts.

Suddenly, a person dressed in a gorilla suit casually strolls onto the court, beats its chest, and leaves.  You’re pretty sure you’d notice this, right? Actually, 50% of the observers missed the gorilla.

We can only focus on one thing at a time

Magicians take advantage of change blindness to create their illusions because we humans are really only able to focus our attention on one thing at a time.

This is an advantage for a magician using sleight of hand, but it’s a problem when you want users interact with your website.

When might visitors experience change blindness when using your site?

  • Interruption in visual perception – this can happen when a page reloads or when your cell phone or tablet reorients from vertical to horizontal. Visual interruption can happen in the blink of an eye.
  • Addition of new visual elements – for example, when an Add to Cart button changes text to Out of Stock while everything else on the screen stays the same, the slight difference can easily go unnoticed and cause confusion. (See the example below.)Screenshots -

Essentially, any time users scroll through your website and see new elements introduced to an existing display, it creates an opportunity for them to delay or miss the action or task you intended.

If you’ve ever submitted a form and missed the resulting notification, that’s change blindness.

If you’ve ever skipped a field when you’re filling in a form but didn’t see the error message that’s change blindness.

If you’ve ever overlooked a progress moving from one step to the next, that’s change blindness.

It’s that easy to miss small visual elements added to an existing display.

How can you combat change blindness to ensure effective website usability?

Talk with your web agency about the suggestions below and you’ll be taking a big step toward preventing users from getting confused on your site due to change blindness. This means you’ll be making it easier for them to complete the actions you want them to take:

  • Minimize Visual Interruptions – eliminating distracting page reloads whenever possible.
  • Appropriate Visual Emphasis – emphasize the contrast and size of newly-appearing visual elements. Use the “squint test” to see if a new element stands out when you sit back from your monitor or phone.
  • Strategic Placement – place newly-appearing design elements close to the point where users’ eyes will already be focused before the change occurred on the page.
  • Animated Transitions – consider including icons triggered by user actions that direct the eye to a chosen focal point to ensure a visual change on a page won’t be missed.

Have your web agency conduct a quick review of your site with a focus on locating any places where change blindness is likely to occur. Then make a plan to correct them.

Want to dive further and learn more about how change blindness affects your website?  Read this article by the Nielsen Norman Group or leaf through The Invisible Gorilla: How our Intuitions Deceive Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.

Or, reach out to us directly and let’s have a conversation about your website.