Time vs. Attention: Which is More Valuable?

tl:dr For those who’ve used up their attention for the day: Design for your users attention span more than their time, it’s what really matters.

A couple of weeks ago was huge for Malmö. In fact, it’s so big that they label it THE WEEK. Every year, the highlight is The Conference and I’ve loved attending this event. However, this year, I decided not to go. No, it has nothing to do with the speakers, the topics, or because my calendar is full of client work. It’s because I’ve come to a revelation. I simply can’t concentrate for an entire day – and I bet you can’t either.

Jason Fried recently wrote for Signal v. Noise:

I recently realized that if I’m too busy to take something on, I shouldn’t say “I don’t have the time”. In fact, I often do have the time. It’s not that hard to squeeze in some extra time for someone.

What I don’t have – and what I can’t squeeze in – is more attention. Attention is a far more limited resource than time. So what I should say is “I don’t have the attention”. I may have 8 hours a day for work, but I probably have 4 hours a day for attention.

That final line is what got me thinking. While I may have the TIME for more projects, conferences, and other random stuff – I don’t have the ATTENTION for it. Other projects or my personal life would suffer from borrowing attention from them. I’m less and less willing to make that sacrifice.

Our everyday experiences have a cost.

That conference, meeting, or app requires effort. In terms of time, there’s no problem squeezing in 7 meetings in one day, but our attention only will allow 3 or 4 of those to be productive.

This is particularly important when creating an event like a conference or workshop. Organizers often focus more on how much content they can pack into a day than if they can hold the attention of the audience. Hyper Island does a spectacular job of this when they have their Master Classes (which are quite intense!). Between sessions they offer things they call Energizers. These aren’t energy bars or sugary treats; these are short exercises that help you to refocus. My favorite? The Shouting Game is always a win!

How does this translate to the user experience?

You need to look at your product – a conference, app, or a store – and be able to understand the attention span it requires. I can keep my attention focused at a conference for around 4 hours, but I don’t even last an hour browsing Facebook. Just as it is important to align your Values, understanding the attention span of your users could help you find success. Most product owners can only measure their success as “time spent on site”, but we are still trying to understand what the real goal is. Is longer better? Does that really mean they love browsing our site? Or are having a hard time finding what they’re looking for?

So here’s an exercise for you:

Think about your day’s attention span. How much time do you have and how will you invest it?

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