I am gearing up to pitch my doctoral dissertation research topic.

I have to convince my IRB committee that I know this stuff well enough to conduct the necessary research to answer my research question: Can color, type, motion, directional focus, and reward reacquire and maintain attention through task completion.

I’d love some feedback on this. Also, if you are interested, follow me so you can see my progress and results as I move through the research.

Directionally, this is where I am heading…

There is no reason to celebrate when we successfully open a door, switch a light on or roll a window down. Similarly, there is no reason to celebrate when a web user successfully completes an online form. Or is there? As technology, culture, globalization, art, and politics continue to change the context of our everyday life, our expectations of things and how they should work are also changing.

Compared to other forms of mass media, the web is still nascent. And in its infancy, the web we know today is not going to be the web we use in a couple of months because the technology, design, and user experience scaffolding holding it together shift continuously and endlessly.

Furthering this confluence is how and when we consume media. How we work and our media consumption habits have substantially changed over the past twenty years. Today, we use multiple devices at the same time and jump from function to function. As a result, we have very short attention spans and we seek immediate satisfaction.

The always-on, right now, micro-transactional nature of how we work and consume media are turning us into creatures that have the attention span of gnats.

As Rushkoff argues in his book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, our attention is so fractured across so many things that it is a miracle we are able to think critically, much less get anything done.

And yet, getting things done, or more specifically, task completion, is one of the most fundamental measures of success for apps and websites.

With email, music, phone calls, chats, productivity applications, etc. constantly vying for our attention, it’s not hard to understand why shopping cart and form abandonment rates are so high.

Even though technology and media are evolving at neck-breaking speeds, humans are not. Perhaps we’ve been forced to adapt to how we work and consume media, but 315,000 years of human evolution are not erased by 20 years of technological advances.

Physiologically, cognitively and neurologically speaking, our brains fundamentally work the same as they did before the arrival of the web. For example, we know a lot about how the brain attends and maintains attention. We also know that emotional state affects focus, attention, and task completion. Through this lens, we know there is quite a bit that user experience designers can do to affect task completion.

What we don’t know for certain is which variables and in what applied combination would have the most impact on acquiring and maintaining attention through task completion.

The brain is constantly and unintentionally scanning the environment for change. This “bottom-up” processing is natural and effortless. In other words, provided the user has normal cognitive function, they are actively, unintentionally, and effortlessly scanning the environment for new patterns or changes.

Knowing that users are deliberately bouncing from screen to screen and from app to app, methods to reacquire and maintain user attention could include changes to the environment such as subtle color changes, timeout-based animations, shorter tasks, intermittent “encouragement”, directional focus, typography and page density.

I want to run an experimental study that explores how some of the creative dimensions can affect attention span and maintenance.