Optimizing Websites for Short Attention Spans

There’s a very good chance you won’t finish reading this blog post. Why? Because you’re constantly bombarded with distractions and options.

You have plenty of other blog posts to read or emails in your inbox beckoning for your attention. Even if you commit to reading this you may be distracted by a ringing cellphone or a text message. Or maybe your brain will suddenly remember that proposal you had promised to send out 3 hours ago. Just as you may abandon this post, at this very moment, dozens of visitors may be leaving your website for similar reasons.

When optimizing our websites, we often focus (and rightly so) on elements such as web forms, buttons, product pages, shopping carts, etc. It’s easy to forget the countless external factors that affect the attention of our customers.

Preventing Controllable Distractions

Many distractions, such as calls from customers or bosses can’t be prevented, but some are within our control, such as:

  • Ads on your website. If you’re currently using ads to supplement your income on a e-commerce site, seriously consider the professionalism and effectiveness of this tactic, as ads offer one more needless distraction.
  • Cluttered checkout. This could include not removing navigation during the checkout process, or showing too many upsells/crossells too late in the checkout process.
  • Make Your Site Design Good, but Not Too Good. Web design can be a double-edged sword. Professional, attractive, and usable design will put the focus where it belongs, on the products. On the other hand, overly animated or creative design can be a distraction, focusing too much attention on the website rather than what’s being sold.
  • Too many fields, too little time. Do your web forms stay on a need to know basis, or are you quizzing your customers for information you’ll never use?

Are You Stressing Urgency?

Does your website give visitors any sense of urgency to complete a transaction? If you’re running a sale, do you clearly communicate the end date? If you’re offering merchandise at a permanent mark-down price, have you reminded customers this item will not be re-stocked? Customers assume there’s safety in later. It’s our job to refute that idea, and close the sale now.

Have a Killer UVP

If visitors feel your product is a commodity, you have already lost the battle for their attention. From the moment a prospect lands on your website, you must differentiate the heck out of their experience. If your unique value proposition (e.g. free shipping on returns, 110% price guarantee, 10% of sales donated to charity, etc.) is not clearly communicated as early as possible, then customers are prone to choose another option, namely your competitor with a lower price. While you can never prevent interruptions, the best you can do is convince a customer that what they are currently doing (shopping on your site) is more important than that pressing distraction.

Does your Site Have An Express Lane?

Try this experiment: Time yourself on how quickly you can complete a transaction on your website. Better yet, ask someone unfamiliar with your site to place an order as fast as they can. If its not humanly possible to complete a transaction in a short period of time (say 3 minutes), then the odds of your visitors abandoning their effort due to distractions greatly increases.

Re-capturing Lost Opportunities

Of course there is no foolproof way to prevent external distractions, but there are some effective tactics for re-capturing lost prospects. One of my clients sends personalized emails to every customer who abandons their shopping cart, asking if there was a problem preventing them from completing their purchase. One of the more typical responses, not surprisingly, goes something like this, “There’s nothing wrong with your website, I just got distracted and didn’t finish my purchase.” In addition to sending cart reminders, make it a priority to capture email addresses. Personally, I will subscribe to a website that I find interesting at the moment, but I’m too busy to buy or dig deeper. Another tactic would be encouraging bookmarks, whether browser based or through a social bookmarking service such as Delicious.

Quite possibly, this very blog post is an interruption in your day, maybe distracting you from accomplishing something more important. But since I kept your attention this long, hopefully you’ll take away a practical tidbit from this article, or will leave a comment with your own input.