Here’s why your content doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

The takeaway to this article? Readers don’t decide to block off 5–10 minutes of dedicated attention to read your stuff. They are constantly paying micro-attention to bits of your content, evaluating how soon they can stop reading and move on to something else.

It’s managing micro-attention that makes or breaks your content performance.

 

Micro-attention needs a micro-solution

Micro-attention consists of the small but critical transactions that occur as the fickle reader skims your content. Each moment hangs in the balance as the reader decides to stay on your site for a few more eye scans, or succumbs to the pull of the rest of the internet. Or the pull of real life, because let’s face it: no one is reading your carefully honed wordsmithing in a quiet library. Instead, your readers are bringing the noise of modern life into the reading experience of your content.

For modern websites, reader distraction is digital death by 1000 cuts. This article examines the myriad forces that drive distraction, how traditional macro-level strategies like great content and great design are insufficient, and how to leverage the Asym micro-typography platform to win readers’ attention on a level that has never been possible before.

 

Overview

Let’s uncover the real enemies to content performance.

  1. The first enemy is the mobile experience. Mobile isn’t your friend because of both environmental noise and device noise.
  2. The second enemy is digital optionality. Indirect competitors are your greatest competition.
  3. The third enemy is content and its downward spiral.

The solution to these problems? Read on.

 

Mobile—panacea or perfect storm?

Your content is no doubt great, but chances are that half of your audience is reading it on a mobile device. Strike One. Mobile readers are harder to engage – fewer page views and shorter dwell times are par for the course with mobile.

Yes, mobile changed everything ten years ago as phones became smart and took on new roles. Where before phones were used to make calls, smartphones morphed into opportunities for personal messaging, group messaging, email, social apps, browsing the web, shopping, games, and generally a perfect storm of distraction.

Smartphones made people accessible. You can now deliver your content to them at any place and any time. But engagement seems to correlate strongly with the size of the device. So it is true that there are millions of users right now on their devices who could be reached by your content.at this very moment wherever they might be. But how much of their real attention – the deep consumption of your message – do you really have? Probably not as much as you think. More likely you have their shallow attention as they multitask on their pocket- and purse-sized distraction device. Studies show that even when reading on a desktop computer just having your phone on and within reach is a distraction to productivity.

Environmental Noise

Part of the problem is environmental noise – your mobile audience is reading in line, standing or walking on the street, in that boring meeting, while watching another screen, at breakfast, lunch, or dinner, with screaming kids . . . you get the idea. Yes social media helps you reach a wider audience, but social media (and society) can rip audience attention away from your content.

woman distracted by social media

 

Device Noise

The other side of the coin is device noise. How many notifications arrived during your 7 minute Medium post? Maybe the reader just remembered to write that work email they forgot about. Or received an actual phone call that takes over the entire screen (some people still take calls on their phone). Mobile audiences are attractive to publishers for the same reason mobile audiences are unattractive: they are easy to get (and equally easy to lose).

social media distractions

Mobile audiences are attractive to publishers for the same reason mobile audiences are unattractive: they are easy to get (and equally easy to lose)

Facebook recognizes the role of this factor and has limited how often publishers can have breaking news. Audiences have developed “fatigue with urgency” and Facebook knows this is bad for business. If Facebook sees user attention as a finite resource to be protected for its own ends, then everyone who competes against Facebook – and this is everyone who puts out content they want read – needs to consider the intrinsic value of attention.

Attention is being monetized – sometimes just a glance or a few seconds at at time. Devices and their apps now push urgency via notifications, banners, and badges. These often encourage if not demand interaction – preferably now – pulling away readers’ attention. Commodity or resource, attention is how many ad-supported businesses drive revenue. Attention isn’t free. Consumers have only so much time, patience, or interest. And they have many options where to spend it.

 

Optionality

The optionality of modern consumption is Strike Two. Optionality is about the siren call of other apps, or surfing to another topic, or clicking / swiping away to the next ephemeral experience. Reflect on your own mobile consumption habits and ask how often you stick with the destination you just clicked on? Do other options intrude and pull you away from your original content?

Do you think your readers behave differently?

On any mobile device (or any non-mobile device for that matter), spontaneity wrecks havoc on reader engagement. Because as easy as it was to get to your content, it is just as easy to get somewhere else. How easy? Intentionally or accidentally, a click, a swipe, or an idle scroll is all it takes. The rest of the internet lurks uncomfortably near. Your audience is just one or two gestures away from becoming someone else’s audience.

distracting trending media

Your audience is just one or two gestures away from becoming someone else’s audience.

 

Disposability

The disposability of so much content on the web is Strike Three. It can be tough for your quality content to surface when readers are deluged with disposable content constantly throughout the day. Disposable content exists because many publishers make the mistake of optimizing for shallow attention. The reasoning is clear: if we just had the audience scale of Google or Facebook, think how much reach and revenue would follow. This leads to wars of attention among providers, struggling to compel more clicks at any cost. The strategies are often short term, and use humor, salaciousness, or outright misinformation to compel the click. This industry practice even has its own (infamous) name: clickbait.

The problem is worse on mobile because mobile audiences are prone to treating mobile experiences as temporary. If you are “killing time” on your phone throughout the day, it changes your mindset and your relationship with the information you view through that mobile porthole to the internet. The phone screen becomes a place of amusements and disposable actions. And that affects how your readers frame the content they encounter. There is a good chance your mobile reader expects to be interrupted while reading your content. Not a good frame to drive the performance of your content.

There is a good chance your mobile reader expects to be interrupted while reading your content.

 

The pervasive damage of disposable content

The problem with creating disposable content as a business strategy is that, let’s face it, publishers don’t have the reach of Facebook and Google. Clickbait has consequences – namely shifting your audience even more into this shallow mode of consumption and devaluing your brand. By treating your audience’s attention as a cheap commodity, you cheapen your relationship with them. Your influence, trust, and perception of quality suffers. Sure, you won their attention for 60 seconds. But is this what your really want as a publisher? Why prefer eyeball quantity over eyeball quality? Why prefer shallow attention readers over deeply engaged readers who might read the next article and return again tomorrow?

It’s understandably attractive – clicks and page views are easy enough to measure and are concrete. But trying to scale your way to success via short term solutions devalues the internet. Content providers and content consumers both share a responsibility here. We’ve done this to ourselves as a society. By creating more and more information as providers we’ve created too much information, too many options for the reader. Studies show that consumers react poorly when confronted with too many choices. How do they react with nearly infinite choice? By having shallow, superficial relationships with content. This quickly spirals into a content ecosystem where it’s a race to the bottom and the results are shorter attention spans.

 

Solving the attention problem

How do you reach a mostly mobile, definitely distracted audience with infinite choice and a disposable-information mindset?


Of course, there are common solutions based on macro-level strategy:

  • Great Content: Stand out from the competition with content that’s useful for your audience. Rather than providing content that’s brand-centric, provide content that’s user-centric.
  • Great Design: Design for people who skim rather than read. Use Gestalt principles to help your readers spot key ideas and group information into separate, easy to understand chunks. Readers spend less time trying to understand your content and more time using or acting on it.

While these are fantastic approaches and solve genuine problems of information design, they don’t address the catastrophic issue of fractured attention. How can we go beyond these well-worn paths?

How do you defeat death by 1000 cuts? Go small. The best way to solve micro problems is with micro solutions.

antman, representing a micro solution to a micro problem

 

Micro-chunking—the secret to Asym

What can be done on a macro level can also be done on a micro level. Technology now exists that allows companies to do automated information design at the sentence level. Asym, our micro-typography platform, is a novel solution for the emerging economy driven by micro-attention. It’s a win for the reader and a win for the publisher.

Much as a skilled orator uses pauses to effectively group ideas together, Asym cloud-based software can instantly insert subtle differences to the spacing between words. These variable spaces between words provide visual cues that guide readers’ eyes and indicate which words belong together and which words are separate.

Justlikewordspacingmakesstringsofletterseasiertoread, asymmetrical spacing helps make multi-word chunks easier to read. Rather than the reader working hard to evaluate the importance of each and every word, these cues provide just enough asymmetry to draw micro-attention to the most valuable parts of your content. The end result is content is easier to understand.

Easy to understand content reduces cognitive load, which can help you either retain the reader just a little longer or more efficiently transfer your message from page to brain before you lose the reader. The message is noticed, perceived, and remembered better. Text becomes more engaging. If your audience is poisoned with information overload, deeper comprehension – even of just a few words at a time – is the best antidote to transient attention.

Asym is the only automated, scalable tool you can use to optimize your site for micro-attention. The principles have been around for more than 60 years, but we are the first to bring to market the technology required to apply it in real-time to digital text. We started with research-based text optimization that reduces cognitive load. Over the past three years we’ve honed that optimization over a wide variety of edge and corner cases. We deliver text that has been proven time and time again to increase concrete actions such as add-to-cart transactions, deeper average page depth, more repeat visitors, more shared content, and other high-impact metrics that drive revenue and improve your bottom line.

 

More of a good thing

Your audience’s attention is valuable. We know your attention is as well. We developed Asym to be as lightweight and easy-to-implement as possible so you can increase content performance without having to dedicate extensive time or resources.

As a technology company we recognize that providers and consumers are locked in an attentional tug of war and that this situation will only get worse. We do our own part to combat the core problem by helping companies retain precious audience attention. We’re also hopeful that by highlighting the forces that shape modern content consumption, both readers and providers will examine where their own habits and practices contribute to making the ecosystem more shallow. Enabling deeper understanding on the web is good thing.

Thanks for reading

 

Chris, Ken, & Edward

 

Antman pic: by https://www.flickr.com/people/28277470@N05/ – https://www.flickr.com/photos/28277470@N05/19671958442/in/dateposted/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44379583

 

Technology makes us information rich and attention poor

You can’t speed read (5-10x faster) without a corresponding loss in comprehension, but it turns out that you can read faster and understand more of what you read if you improve the user experience inside the foveal window. This post describes relevant terms and examines empirical evidence on improving the user experience of reading. A link to a related white paper on improving the user experience of reading is also included.

Recently, the New York Times published an article “Sorry, You Can’t Speed Read” by Jeffrey M. Zacks and Rebecca Treiman. The article covers the challenges of improving our individual abilities to read faster without significant compromises.

Here at Asymmetrica we have over 40 years of combined experience studying visual perception, reading, and comprehending meaning, both in theory and application. Our work on Asym supports the premise that reading dramatically faster comes at a price to the comprehension and understanding of the content we read.

The Experience Shapes the Meaning

Techniques used to speed read work by rapidly scanning or skimming text. They work because they fundamentally reduce cognitive load during the reading process by leaving out significant content. The result is faster reading. But this speed comes at a cost. At best, speed reading loses critical context and shades of meaning in the author’s message. At worst, it changes the meaning of what we read.

RGB Cells
Viewing an individual RGB cell in isolation gives an incomplete picture – context is critical even to “comprehend a pixel”.

Even products such as Spritz and Squirt, which are based on the Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP) technique, have their own drawbacks. Although they don’t skip content — every word gets presented — they decrease comprehension at higher rates of speed. Words were never designed to stand on their own; they are meant to be interpreted in the context of the phrases and sentences in which they occur. Like presenting individual pixels on a screen one at a time without including the surrounding pixels, RSVP techniques strip away vital context and present fragments that were never designed to stand on their own. The result is fragments of a picture, rather than the complete picture.

Science tells us we can’t read 10x faster without significant trade-offs in comprehension. So what can we do to help our brains read better? Improve the user experience of text.

First let’s talk about what reading really is and where cognitive improvements can be made.

Natural Language Understanding = Hard AI Problem.

Natural language understanding is one of the hardest problems for computers to get right.
The human brain is extremely complex and capable of processing thought, meaning, and critical thinking in ways that even the largest supercomputers and most ambitious AIs created by some of the largest companies have yet to approximate. When we read, our brains perform a deceptively complex set of both serial and parallel functions to turn pixels, letters, words, sentences, and discourse into “meaning.” Complicating things further, human language often contains many non-literal contextual markers like humor, irony, or other indirect modifiers which invert or mean the opposite of the literal meaning. Sometimes these subtleties are the point. Or there may not seem to be a point if you miss the punchline of a joke.

The Act of Understanding

waste_less_time

Order and position matter. Often these can be a source of mistakes, confusion, or errors in one of these processes. We make mistakes – miscues – in reading all the time, but we use context to correct course and get back on track. Wolfgang Iser described reading as an act, the act of using text on a page to generate our own virtual text that translates symbols on a page into personal meaning. Reading is an act of constantly generating and comparing our virtual text to the text we are reading. While not everyone agrees completely with Iser’s interpretation, most agree reading (like listening) is an interactive process, where the reader is trying to guess the author’s (or speaker’s) intent. Reading, like other cognitive activities, is part passive perception, part active reconstruction, building understanding as we go.

This is the magic of language – you can get inside the head of someone else and understand his or her thoughts, even when those thoughts are separated by large distances or thousands of years in time. The written word has a special impact, a certain umph, maybe because there’s an implicit contract when someone takes the time to put their thoughts into writing. When writing is done right, the reader wants to understand.

You Can’t Speed Up the Clock Speed of your Brain’s Processor…

Overclocking
Hobbyists sometimes use liquid nitrogen to cool an overclocked computer processor. This is probably not a viable option for overclocking your brain.

Reading depends on biomechanical processes, and the speed of these biomechanical processes in our brains are fixed. Some brains may be more adept and some less adept at this (e.g., due to individual differences, development, dysfunction, or trauma) at certain parts of the reading experience. But in the end we are all speed-limited by the boundaries of chemistry and physics, attention and perception, and memory and cognition.

One of the limits on these cognitive abilities is anatomical. Our eyes have a specialized region in the retina called the fovea that we use for detailed visual analysis, such as during reading or driving. The fovea contains about 1% of the surface area of the retina, but the brain devotes about 50% of visual cortex to analysis of the signals coming from this tiny, crucial set of neurons. This special part of the eye has evolved to break down the world in exquisite detail, but the detail that it can see is only a small window of our visual world, typically a little more than a dozen letters, or about 2-3 words wide.

Fovea window and chunking text for speed reading
The brain devotes about 50% of the visual cortex to analysis of the signals coming from the fovea, which is only 1% of the surface area of the retina.

To read or perform any other complex visual activity, we have to move this window across the environment by moving our eyes and turning our head or body. The outside world gets represented in our heads as a series of tiny hi-res snapshots. As we scan our eyes across a visual scene, our brains integrate these snapshots into a seamless experience. Unfortunately for reading comprehension, the peripheral information outside the foveal window is blurry. We use this blurry area (the 99% of retinal real estate outside of our foveal window) for detecting motion. Thus, a real bottleneck in cognition for activities like reading is how information is packed into this narrow foveal window that we see through.

Once information is through the window, other slower forms of processing integrate the words into structure and meaning. Forcing information into the foveal window faster with technologies like Spritz or Squirt doesn’t help with understanding it better. Before your brain can integrate the information from this foveal window, it needs to be in an efficient package. But what’s an efficient package?

An Ideal Package of Information

An efficient package is a small chunk of words – a phrase – one of many structural patterns that occur over and over again in the language. Your brain is fast at recognizing these patterns, and ultimately uses them as building blocks to resolve ambiguities as you build up the structure and meaning of a sentence during processing. Ideally, the information from a single phrase or chunk would fall inside the foveal window – one chunk per foveal snapshot.

Otherwise, your brain has to determine which words belong in which chunks across two different snapshots (separated by an eye movement). This is harder, less efficient, and more prone to errors. Given the small size of the foveal window, optimization is not about faster information flow into the window, but about good packaging of the information. In an ideal reading environment, the eyes would process one package of meaning (one phrase) per window. Good packaging speeds output to the next stages of language processing, where higher order relationships among phrases can be resolved.

There are many ‘packaging’ techniques used to help readers identify meaningful chunks. The white paper Augmenting reading performance: The history and science of chunking via text formatting examines the variety of techniques used to help readers chunk effectively. Reading the white paper will introduce you to:

  • How language is organized into phrases, clauses, and sentences (chunks) during comprehension;
  • a rich history where writing systems fully marked these chunks, but modern writing systems only mark the ends of major clauses and sentences;
  • a synopsis of decades of research that show that chunking improves reading performance;
  • how good readers have eye-movement patterns that correspond to meaningful chunks; and
  • the ways to cue poor or distracted readers to have the same eye-movement patterns of good readers.

The takeaway is that distracted or otherwise challenged readers can have eye-movement patterns identical to those of excellent, undistracted readers if appropriate techniques are used to chunk text. Given the distraction-rich environments in which we read, we see chunking text as a valuable tool to enhance reading ability. We want to bring the benefits of this technique to as many readers as possible.

How to Fight a Perfect Storm?

Given society’s large shift towards mobile devices like phones and tablets, our reading experiences can now happen anywhere and anytime. Cutting cords has given us new freedoms, but also new burdens. Not only has more data and content been made available for us to read, we are now more and more distracted by mobile surroundings. The rising currents of information combined with a climate of distracting devices creates a veritable hurricane that wreaks havoc with understanding what we read.

change_the_world

This is why at Asymmetrica we have a sense of urgency. Our transition from the information age to the networked age has deluged all of us with an ever increasing wall of information. This deluge is only going to get more intense. To develop a solution, we carefully examined what we can and can’t do. We know you can’t speed up the clock speed of your brain’s processor, but you can remove unnecessary operations by chunking information into a more efficient representation. This ‘wasting less time’ approach is the heart of our solution.

Waste Less Time

Readers of content that use chunking aren’t as much reading faster as wasting less time while reading. With effective chunking, each eye movement is more efficient – our phrase-marking gives your brain natural cues for where to pause during reading. The content remains the same, but because eye movements are more efficient, the brain can efficiently integrate every chunk of meaning into the stream of understanding. With Asym, people aren’t cramming in more information faster, they’re comprehending more effectively.

Better Comprehension Can Lead to a Better World

Speed reading (1000% faster) won’t change the world beyond teaching people how to skim text. Improving comprehension is a different story. Significant improvement in comprehension is not only possible, it is practical. It can help companies keep users on a webpage. It can improve conversion rates on calls to action. In today’s post-mobile, highly networked, distraction-rich world of information overwhelm, better understanding might just lead to a better world. The 10-35% improvements we’ve seen from chunking are the difference of a letter grade (or more) for a student in school. It may be the difference between understanding and not understanding what we read. And it could be the difference between someone learning (or re-learning) to read, and someone giving up in frustration.

In the words of Herbert Simon more than 40 years ago:

In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes

    .”

He concludes by saying:

. . . a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.

We designed Asym to address the poverty of attention so elegantly described by Herbert. If our solution to modern distractibility helps even a few at-risk readers, it has more than met our mission.

Asym technology is uniquely positioned at a crossroads where design and science meet typography. We hope it’s worth putting on your map.

poverty_of_attention