Corporate Eye

Attention, Personalisation and the Holodeck

attention span and perceptive media

Attention and calm technology

A while ago, a study by Microsoft suggested that the human attention span is now about 8 seconds – shorter than that of a goldfish. Now that grabbed some media attention, even though the study wasn’t necessarily good science.

Is it really true that our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter? Certainly we are all busy-busy, and the technology that we’re using tends to interrupt us, disrupting our attention. On the other hand, expert gamers develop extremely high levels of attention to their fast-moving games. At least, that’s what my son tells me, and I can confirm that it is indeed difficult to distract him…

Studies show that in general, we manage not to pay attention to most of the many thousands of things going on around us. We have to deliberately ignore almost everything in our environment, in order to be able to focus on the things that matter, whether these are threats or things of intense interest to us.

One of the problems with some of the technologies we’re using at the moment is that the devices (and the programs that run on them) are trying to attract our attention with incessant audible notifications, designed to interrupt us—and everyone else around us. There are other types of alerts possible (lights or vibrations, for instance) and using these other techniques could help users to keep some of their notifications private.

Designing so that the user could personalise their alert styles to suit their lifestyles might help us all lead a calmer life; of course, everyone would need to take some responsibility for doing this, and the technologies would have to allow it.

This was entertainingly discussed by Amber Case (@caseorganic) at Thinking Digital Manchester (she has a book out called Calm Technology which has gone straight into my wish list and is likely to be well worth reading). If there was an overarching theme to the conference, it was about audience attention—and distraction.


Attention and tailored media

Ian Forrester (@cubicgarden, BBC R&D) talked about perceptive media: media shaped in real time to suit an individual’s preferences and aspects of their personality, presenting differences in scenes, perspectives, colour and sound-track. At the moment, this is done by the viewer completing a profile, and the data then used to inform which media assets are used in which order, and which effects should be applied when.

And he talked about scalable documentaries, where the extent or depth of the information presented depends on the amount of time available to the listener—that is, how much attention they were able to pay; for example, rather than a podcast of a set 45 minutes on the journey to work, your device could contract or extend that podcast based on the predicted time of that journey on that day (38 minutes…52 minutes etc).

And that’s really interesting.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Star Trek holodeck, where storytelling is immersive, interactive, and tailored to an individual’s preferences and interests.

Attention and the corporate website

One of the lenses that we use to look at website content is to consider the likely attention span and interests of different visitors, which will depend on the intent with which they are visiting the page.

For example, a junior buyer may explore a B2B website in detail, and review a great deal of information in order to collate options for a corporate purchase and make a recommendation; but the senior budget-holder is likely to be interested only in an executive summary, and may have less time available to view it.

Individuals also have different preferences for absorbing information; some prefer information to be graphically presented, while others prefer text or video.

Imagine a website that could dynamically present information to a visitor at different levels of detail, and in different modes, depending on their interests on that visit, and depending on the time they have available on that day—that is, the amount of attention they can afford to pay on that day. Of course, a visitor may come to a website multiple times for different reasons: to investigate products on one day, and as a potential jobseeker the following week.

What do you think? Would that be a convenience, or just another example of a filter bubble?

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