UX — Selective Attention

Naveen Mamgain
3 min readJan 18, 2018


We have limited resources to process information in our mind. Users might looking for a specific interface element and even though he is looking directly at it, he can’t seem to see it. The idea of looking but not seeing is a well known concept in psychology call selective attention. Selective attention is an important concept in Cognitive psychology. It plays huge role while conceptualizing products and though this designers can create a seamless flow for users. Let’s understand what is selective attention.

What is selective attention.

It's the process of focusing on a particular object in the environment for a certain period of time. As it’s a limited resource, so selective attention allows us to tune out unimportant details and focus on what really matters.

How it works

Imagine <though you don’t need to imagine :)> you are sitting at your desk, conceptualizing flow for your next project. Multiple activities happen around you like discussion in next bay, keyboard sound, chit-chatting, chair movement, slight traffic noise from your window, mobile ringtones, notification alarms and many other sounds compete for your attention. Out of all these noises, you find yourself able to side out the irrelevant sounds and focus on the flow of user registration feature.

How do your manage to ignore certain sounds and concentrate on just one thing. This is a example of selective attention. Because our ability to focus on the things around us is limited. We have to be choose information we pay attention to.

Sometimes we process multiple information simultaneously which actually increase our efficiency. This concept is Divided attention

Divided Attention

Divided attention could be defined as our brain’s ability to attend to two different stimuli at the same time, and respond to the multiple demands of your surroundings.

This cognitive skill is very important, as it allows us to be more efficient in our day-to-day lives.

Our ability to manage multiple information at the same time does not have its limits. When you divide your attention, your efficiency may decreased. Decrements depend on the type of interference. It can be improved with practice and training.

Example of divided attention — You should able to understand what the teacher is saying with the heading written on the board and taking notes. All activities at the same time. Understand — Read — Write

It will be easy to process information when one task is automated. When you started learning driving, initially focus was on the clutch, brakes, handle and what’s coming on the road. You didn’t care about the type of music was being played or your cell phone etc. But once you are familiar with the pattern of driving, it stored in your muscle memory. Automatically your leg moves to clutch at the time of gear change or dippers while changing directions. Now you can easily change the songs, check voice notifications.

So, if one part is automated; efficiency increases. Few examples below

Hard to read and listen to words
Easier to do a physical task and listen to words
You cannot drive and text (you might think it’s possible but our attention shifts completely leads to dangerous situations )

How it matters in User Experience

When designing user experience, do not expect people to do two things at once. Although it entirely depends on the objective of output but its good to stick to the basic principal of attention.

Better to show one form instead of two side by side. Either login or sign up. User will process the information one by one and complete the task.

Two tasks, login and sign up shows at the same time has high cognitive load
One task, signup takes the focus and reduce cognitive load

Although user experience is comprehended by our senses (vision, touch, hearing) but it is immediately processed by our brain. Being designers, we have to understand how to create experiences that go seamless with how the human brain evaluates them.



Naveen Mamgain

UX Designer. Kalaripayattu Enthusiast. Love to talk about design, psychology and life. https://www.linkedin.com/in/naveenmamgain