Web design and “user myopia”

My non-designer approach to web and user interface design is decidedly functional. Beauty only gets you so far; I’m interested in what inspires people to take part in something, in what yanks them out of their bubble and makes them feel connected to something beyond themselves. Long essays just don’t scan well on the web, where everything you post is competing with a thousand other things for a user’s attention.

Nevertheless, the desire to connect is strong, and there are many ways to engage it, even if that engagement is fleeting. Bold headlines often do the trick. A sharp design that doesn’t call attention to itself, but appeals to users’ emotions, usually helps. But I’ve found that online designers, writers, and producers often overlook a simple fact about their audience: people rarely see what you want them to see.

I’ve spent much of my working life producing content meant to be viewed online, and whenever that content has involved words — as, um, this does — I’ve had the nagging feeling that my intended audience just won’t be able to focus on it. Not if there’s too much of it, and not if it doesn’t reach out and grab them in a visceral way. Every day, I labor long and hard over the text people will read in an email or a blog post.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m convinced that if I make the perfect argument people will see things my way.  I’m deceiving myself; most people never finish the piece, and never get to that witty comparison between “big media” and “bigger media” that’s buried in the 5th graf.

This disconnect between producer and audience applies to every kind of site.  You write a blog post featuring a complicated argument, and your readers take away the opposite point. You create a community site and make the registration and sign up process as easy as possible, but still no one can figure it out. Back to the drawing board you go.

Once again, users — accustomed to being immediately taken with a site, or else they take off — simply don’t always see what you want them to see.

Coder Jeff Atwood recently looked closer at this phenomenon. First, he jokes that users don’t read anything you put on the screen. But then he gets serious.

When I said users don’t read anything you put on the screen, I was lying. Users do read. But users will only read the absolute minimum amount of text on the screen necessary to complete their task. I can’t quite explain it, but this kind of user myopia is epidemic. It’s the same problem, everywhere I turn.

Perfectly put. As an online writer, that means one thing above all: don’t write one word more than you have to.

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