Designing Glanceable Content for Partial Attention

Captive audiences are the exception, not the norm.  Audiences only rarely offer their undivided attention. How to design content for audiences who are only half paying attention is a growing challenge.

Despite wide recognition that most folks have too much on their minds, content producers continue to hope they’ll get the full attention of audiences.  According to conventional advice, if content designers make content simple and relevant, the content will earn the attention of audiences.  The messy, everyday reality that audiences face interferes with their attention, no matter how well considered and crafted the content.  The stark truth is that attention cannot always be earned. It must be bargained with.

Mounting evidence indicates audiences have less attention to dedicate to consuming content actively. Even when they want content, they don’t necessarily want the content to dominate what they are doing.  People want content they can multitask with, content that supports them as they do things like chores, exercise, or driving — instead of being the focus of what they are doing.  The rising popularity of audio books and podcasts are indications of the desire for content that supports multitasking or continuous partial attention. Streaming content doesn’t require active interaction.

Another tactic to compensate for our fragmenting attention is to make content smaller.  Many publishers seek to turn content into bite sized chunks that don’t take long to read.  Audiences nibble bite sized content when they are focused on other things, such as a conversation or a physical activity such as walking or waiting, or when they are mentally preoccupied with matters that may not be directly related to the content.

Bite sized content appears as informational cards displayed on smartphones, on the screens of smart watches, or as the snippets of audio available on voiced controlled audio platforms.  Contrary to common belief, making content bite sized does not mean it demands little attention from audiences, even if the item itself requires little time to read, watch or hear.  Attention is not the same as time to read.  Attention is part of a broader concept of content engagement.

Transcending the Four Standard Categories of Content Engagement

Content typically falls into one of four categories of engagement, according to the attention and interaction they require:

  • Content that requires constant user interface (UI) interaction and full attention.  An Xbox game might fall in this category, where the game paces the player, requiring them to interact and give their full attention.
  • Content that doesn’t require much UI interaction, but requires full attention.  An involved murder mystery story, whether  delivered as a video, audio or text, would be an example.
  • Content that requires UI interaction, but only intermittent attention.  An example is a buzzing notification on a watch or smartphone.  You can’t avoid paying attention to the notification, because it’s in your face.
  • Content that requires no UI interaction, and only intermittent attention.  Glancing at a dull sports match on a TV in a sports bar might qualify.

But another category exists, where there is intermittent attention, and only limited UI interaction.  The content is not zombie-like, where no interaction happens, but neither is it reactive, where the machine is demanding interaction.  Instead, the content allows the user to pay attention electively, and interact electively.  This is glanceable content that offers some choice.

Finding the Threshold of Significance

Chunks of content should be significant to audiences. When audiences can give their full attention, a sequence of small content chunks can be woven into a narrative that provides detailed meaning.  But when audience attention is partial, a content chunk must stand alone to convey meaning.

In some cases, content designers know the context of the audience, and can design small items of content that matches that context.  Notifications, at their best, provide an example of small items of content that match the context of the user.  It is easy to get notifications wrong.  Notifications or alerts tend to poke the user.  They are often action focused, requesting or confirming an action.  Notifications either presume attention, or demand attention.  Notifications can be hectoring, where the machine sets the pace for humans, rather than letting humans set their own pace.

In contrast to notifications, glanceable content presumes that the audience will choose for themselves when they want to look, and for how long.  The content needs to tempt the user to look at it occasionally, without being a distraction.

What makes a small chunk of information significant to users, making it worth their while?  The chunk of content needs to be specific enough to satisfy the user’s curiosity, but not require a distracting amount of work to access. The content will fail if it doesn’t get this balance right.

Apple recognizes this conundrum in its guidelines for the Apple Watch. It advocates “glanceable” content with “lightweight interactions”.  Not all interaction guidelines of the Watch meet those goals, however. Because only a small amount of content is presented, designers compensate by asking users to interact with it to get exactly the bit they want.

Compact content can be complex as well (Images from Apple Watch guidelines.)

Google has tried to get around the distraction of interaction by requiring little of it from audiences. Google Now cards provide bite sized content, where information within smartphone apps gets surfaced to a main screen.  Google Now curates information through a combination of machine learning to anticipate likely user preferences (implicit feedback), and getting explicit user feedback on these preferences.   While very clever, this approach can’t easily be extended to other publishers who lack the technical resources and embedded positioning of Google.  Not all Google Now cards are easily glanceable, either.

Bite sized content can get busy.  Many layers of information can get crammed on a display, using hieroglyphic cues.  Such displays can vainly call attention to themselves, requiring both sustained gazing and mental interpretation.  They are compact, but not truly glanceable in the sense that someone can notice, at a glance, a key nugget of interest without effort.  Audio content runs less risk of this, since it is harder to compress content at a rate faster than the brain can process (though advertisers sneakily do such things).

Content for Multitasking

Multitasking is a myth: humans don’t really focus on several things simultaneously.  We slice our attention between different targets, switching back and forth between them rapidly.  But multitasking is a powerful metaphor for how people relate to content: they commonly process content from two more sources at the same time.  To be successful, glanceable content needs to respect what the audience wants to focus on.

It’s hard to multitask when everything demands your full attention, and your active interaction.   It’s hard watch a video or listen to audio if one needs to fiddle with screen settings, if one needs to tap and swipe incessantly to hunt down a piece of information, or if one feels rattled by surprise alerts that jump out at you.  All these annoyances are the product of interaction designers who expect and demand attention and interaction from the audience.  Interaction designers often fail to consider the broader content needs of the user.  They fail to think outside the UI in which they are boxed.

Before interaction design became largely associated with Javascript tricks, there was a movement to study how to best design “ambient displays” that provided supplemental, contextual information that was easily glanceable.  A well known example was the “Ambient Orb,” a small light that changed color according to how the stock market was doing (or, if you preferred, the status of the weather).  The product provided a primitive example of how to make content glanceable and non-distracting. But the product treated the user as a passive vessel who could express little choice in what content to follow, and consequently had little substance to keep them interested.  Multitasking wasn’t a challenge, but the secondary task wasn’t very meaningful either.  Ambient displays can come up short because they only focus on ensuring content doesn’t require much attention. They don’t provide any interaction.

A better example of content that is both glanceable and requires only light interaction comes from a digital content display for radio broadcasts known as Journaline.  I’ve only recently learned about this platform, even though it has nearly a decade of history behind it.  I want to spend time discussing concepts  related to Journaline because it provides a good example of how content can be used to support different scenarios of use.  A major use case for Journaline is to provide text-based content on the screens of radios (though the same technology can be applied to video as well).  Its premise is that the text content is secondary to the broadcast audio, and should not interfere with the primary attention of the audience, who may be washing dishes or waiting at a stop light.  Journaline provides guidelines for presenting content in conditions involving low attention.  I am less concerned with whether Journaline itself will become successful commercially than I am in the lessons it can provide content designers more generally.

Designing Elective Supplemental Content

Journaline is a full content schema with its own XML-based markup language. Developed by Germany’s Fraunhofer IIS, “Journaline® is a data application for the DAB and DRM digital radio systems that provides hierarchically structured textual information. The user can easily and immediately access the topics he is currently interested in.”  Alternatively, it has been described as “teletext for digital radio.”

Journaline offers straight text-based content, without distracting elements such as gestures, animations, switches, sliders, or activity ring displays.  The simplicity of its approach makes it a powerful example to learn from.  Because of its XML foundation, the schema can reuse existing content delivered from other sources such as RSS feeds.

Imagine listening to audio content such as a radio broadcast.  You may be doing other activities while listening.  The audio content itself might make reference to other things.  So you may have a need to access supplementary content either relating to the activity you are doing (such as getting traffic information), or supplemental content relating to the audio you are listening to (such as the name of the guest being interviewed).  Journaline provides such information, which can be accessed and seen simply.  Some models of BMWs in Germany have Journaline content displays embedded in their digital radios.

Journaline delivers supplemental baseline information that is changeable, and subject to updating.  It provides a feed of content, but allows some audience control over specific items of interest. The paradigm balances the amount of content offered, and the interaction required.  Sufficient new content is provided to make the display interesting enough to glance at occasionally when convenient to do so, while enough control is offered so that audiences can choose what to get updates on without requiring a distracting amount of interaction.

Journaline identifies five content types associated with informational updates:

  1. News
  2. Sports events and results
  3. Financial information and stock market values
  4. Airport departure and arrival times
  5. Games and lottery

Many of these types involve awareness information that is not so essential that people would actively seek it.  The information is useful when presented, but not worth investing special effort.  The airport info could provide useful pre-arrival information while driving, but won’t provide the depth of details available on a smartphone once one has arrived.

Supplemental information is often related to broadcast programs.  Journaline provides the following scenarios for program related information:

  • Show background information (with optional link to a website)
  • Direct phone link to participate in chat show
  • Song info and purchases, and podcast downloads
  • Captions (radio for the hearing impaired)

I’m not sure all these are necessarily compelling use cases in the context of listening to a broadcast, but they do illustrate the range of uses of supplemental content.  Sometimes the content has a call to action that is thematically tied the primary content, and thus does not compete with it.   But the actions presented in the supplemental content are always elective — the  primary content isn’t promoting the secondary content; rather, the secondary content offers deeper support for the primary content.  Elective actions include ones that cannot be anticipated or expected (such as a desire to call the station), and  options that allow the audience to defer tasks for later, such as the ability to order something to check out later.  When done properly, low-key options let the audience choose the right time to take action, instead of pestering them to act when it may be inconvenient.

Dynamic Information Architecture

Journaline is effective in how it manages information, a kind of dynamic information architecture.  Like traditional information architecture, it provides elements that give audiences choices to navigate and select.  But it is also dynamic, where the elements themselves change as new information is available.  It blurs what’s navigation and what’s content.  Items in a list can update continuously, and can be navigational links to more details about the item.

Journaline works on a feed model, but it doesn’t simply provide a chronological stream.  Instead, content items are pushed out when updates happen, and are stored and available to view when no updates are required.  What’s available to view will be the most up-to-date content about preselected topics.  These topics can be selected (pulled) either through navigation, or by following topics based on simple metadata components such as keywords or geotags (such as content related to things near me).

Journaline uses simple structures for content.  Items are broken into two parts: an initial summary and detail, which could be a headline followed by an explanatory statement. Summaries can be collected by topic.  This simple structuring allows for three basic layers of information: a consolidated view of several items, a general view of a specific item, and a more detailed statement about the item.

The below figure shows how different levels of information relate to each other.

Levels of Glanceable Content
Levels of Glanceable Content

There are three basic levels of content, and three options to reveal content.  Conceptually, they provide different windows for glancing at content.

The highest level provides an overview or digest.  Screens may contain several headlines that relate to a common keyword, or may provide a table of information on a common theme that is updated continually, such as a scoreboard showing teams and scores.

At the mid level, the screen will show a summary of information related to an event or topic. This will typically be a headline, or a caption relating to the audio or to a displayed image.

At the lowest level, items will present details supporting the headline.

Content is revealed in different ways.  Some content is static and fully visible at a glance.  Such content will never require more than a single glance.  But other content is disclosed incrementally over time.

Overview or digest content will refresh frequently. Each headline displayed may serve a predefined role.  A digest on a topic may be composed of different headlines that are presented in a list, where each item is assigned a slot.  A slot— a fixed position on the list —  shows a headline message that changes.  For example, people might track several related items, perhaps headlines relating to an election.  The first slot in the list relates to the keyword “candidate X” and will change throughout the day according to whatever the most important event is relating to candidate X.  A scorecard is a list in table form, where the left column is fixed with the names of teams currently playing, while the right side automatically updates with the most current score.  When the content item refreshes in a predefined spot, it makes it easy for the audience to glance at the content and notice what’s current and new.

Scorecard table, with scores updated continuously
Scorecard table, with scores updated continuously

A different behavior for refreshing content occurs when messages are revealed in stages.  Perhaps several ideas need to be shown that won’t all fit in a single short headline.  Several techniques can be used to reveal such content.  One technique is the news ticker, which displays a running headline.  Text captions for audio may be presented karaoke style.  Another technique is to rotate short headline snippets every few seconds.  These techniques can be useful for background content.  They can be digested with a quick glance, and will change enough to encourage curiosity.  If, however, they contain essential information that must be monitored continually, then they will become distracting.  The staged revelation of content provides a wide frame for audiences to follow, but can demand more attention from them.

Sometimes the audience will want more information than can be presented in a glance.  They want a detail to complete the information hinted at in the headline.  A full message might fit on a single small screen, but if not, then scrolling is required.  Even gesture-based scrolling entails interaction by the user, and requires longer attention spans as well.  This option exists to provide audiences with choice.  They choose this degree of distraction, and will hopefully be in a position to focus away from other activities and content.

Short-burst Content: A Challenge for Content Designers

Audiences routinely experience short bursts of content.  Events are chronicled with live tweets.  Siri and Alexa provide short answers to queries.  All these options offer great benefits to audiences, but they aren’t always the best option in a given situation.  Sometimes short messages require too much attention to follow, or too much work to specify what one wants.

According to the cliché, timing is everything.  When audiences face so many demands on their attention, content timing matters significantly.  Content designers should consider ways content can work in harmony with the activities of audiences, instead of competing with these activities.  Disruption, while cool for startups, is annoying to audiences.  Supplemental content can be a new category of content that supports other activities, instead of being its own activity.  To realize this possibility requires the embracing a radical idea: accepting that the secondary content presented may not be the primary motivation of your audience.  Because audiences in many circumstance are only willing and able to offer partial attention, the secondary content needs to be sufficiently interesting and timely to merit glancing.

The content design challenge is discovering how to get audiences to glance at content that they don’t feel they need to see, but will want to view, if only briefly.  Content that’s useful, without being demanding.  How can we create glanceable moments?

Journaline offers two ideas worth exploring more.  First, it shows the value of creating a hub for content that features topics that change, and that are of interest to audiences.  People will revisit the hub to glance at what changes have happened.

Second, it shows the possibilities of using a secondary channel (in this case text) to augment the primary content channel (audio) to support elective, secondary tasks.  Audiences are primarily interested in the content in the primary channel, and only some will be interested in the secondary channel content at any given time, since they may be preoccupied with other matters.  This technique can easily be used with video, by providing additional real-time or more personalized secondary information relating to the video content that some people will be interested in glancing at, and which is short enough not to distract long from the primary video content.

Designing for partial attention can seem like a loss of control, since there are no guarantees a specific message will reach a specific person.  But it also represents an opportunity to reach audiences who may not be otherwise available.  And it encourages us to think about the fundamentals of how to attract audiences and build their interest in content.

— Michael Andrews