Inattentional blindness - why your users miss the 800-pound gorilla on your website

A couple of decades ago, a famous psychological experiment was carried out. In the experiment, participants are shown a video of two teams passing a basketball. They are told to count the types of passes that are made. Halfway through the video, someone walks through the game wearing a full gorilla suit. The results of the experiment seemed incredible. When the participants were asked if they’d seen anything unusual in the video, half of them said no. The gorilla had been effectively invisible to them, despite being on-screen for 9 seconds and thumping its chest at the camera.

This amazing result was concrete evidence of the existence of ‘inattentional blindness’; our inability to see something right in front of us if we’re concentrating on an unrelated task. It’s a common cause of car accidents; drivers frequently say afterwards that they didn’t see a cyclist or motorbike that was in plain sight.

Invisible gorillas are also everywhere in UX design. You probably have a few of them on your site right now; important bits of content or a function that users should want to investigate, but that they just don’t interact with or seem to notice. You probably can’t understand it; how are they missing something so obvious when it’s right in front of them? The answer is probably inattentional blindness, and here’s how to get around it.

Why your users miss that gorilla

The gorilla in the original experiment was invisible to half of the participants because it didn’t interfere with the task they’d been set, which was very specific and required concentration.

The same is true of your users; if they’re trying to do something on your site, whether it’s search for a specific item, make a purchase, sign up for a newsletter, access information or fill in a form, they’re concentrating on the task in hand. You can’t rely on users noticing something that doesn’t seem relevant to that goal. Throw some information, a link or a button at them on the page that isn’t relevant to what they’re doing and their brains will edit it out, no matter how useful it could be to them.

Carousels are a common website gorilla; the content might be beautiful, useful and relevant but carousels are just part of the furniture, not a functional part of a customer’s journey. They change automatically and don’t require input. People are unlikely to notice elements that just do their thing in the background. This particular inattention blindness may account for the lack of engagement with carousels and similar content. People keep repeating this mistake though!

When to introduce the gorilla

There are ways to show your users the gorilla that are more likely to get it noticed. If you want to introduce additional content or features, consider which point in your user’s journey they seem useful or relevant. This point is where they’re most likely to attract attention.

If you want to introduce something completely unexpected and unrelated to what the user is doing, but that is still to the user’s benefit, you may need to interrupt the flow of what they’re doing entirely with the information. This is so that they can’t proceed without taking it in. This is a suitable tactic to use if the information is something that might be detrimental to the user to miss. And we’re talking critical facts here, not 1000-page legalese T&Cs. In this case, it’s acceptable to interrupt a user to let them know.

The risk with this gorilla tactic is that if interrupting your user journey is ultimately detrimental to a user achieving their goal, you will reduce the percentage of people who choose to complete that goal with you. It should be used sparingly, and only when the information is crucial.

How to get those gorillas into your design

So what does this mean for us as designers? It’s a reminder that we have to consider what users are trying to do at each stage of their journey, and what is going to be relevant to their goals (not to ours).

We must also test our assumptions through user research. Otherwise, we can’t know if an assumption is true or not. It might be that what you think a user is trying to do is not what they’re actually concentrating on at all.

You can use the information you get from mapping your customer journey and user testing your assumptions to show additional content at the most relevant point, increasing engagement, up selling and conversion rates.

The invisible gorilla shows that in digital design, relying on intuition is highly risky and may result in users missing things you really want them to engage with. The answer is to test, test, test those intuitions so that you know what your users are really seeing … and what they aren’t.