The Invisible Gorilla in Your Website: Unmasking Inattentional Blindness

Why users miss the obvious and how UX design can help

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“I swear I was practically a human disco ball!”

So, there I was, practically doing the macarena on the sidewalk — I was jumping and waving at him like a crazy person.

But guess what? He just drove by.

Now, let me rewind a smidge.

My partner was supposed to pick me up. But you know, the adventurous spirit in me thought, “Hey, let’s move 20 steps down and wait by the lights!” Because, well, why not. He couldn’t possibly miss the spot while I was doing the macarena there, right? Spoiler: he did.

“Why didn’t you see me? Was I in Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak or something?” I asked.

He scratched his head, “Wait, there was a cloak involved? No wonder!”

It wasn’t the first time my top-notch jumping & waving went unnoticed. But it was the most recent one.

So here’s the million-dollar question: Why didn’t he notice me when I was essentially a human disco ball?

With all seriousness, the real question is:

Why don’t people see what we think they do?

Because of inattentional blindness.

What is inattentional blindness, and how does it relate to UX design?

People who have inattentional blindness don’t notice something clearly visible and unexpected when they are occupied with something else.

Multiple psychological experiments have explored this cognitive bias, which, you guessed right, has multiple implications for UX (user experience) design.

Inattentional Blindness examples include

Overloaded interfaces

Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris conducted the Invisible Gorilla Experiment, in which participants watched a video of people passing a basketball and counted how many passes they made. An individual in a gorilla suit strolls across the scene, beats their chest, and leaves. It was surprising how few participants noticed the gorilla.

Resource: Simons, D. J., & Chabris, C. F. (1999). Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events.

Change blindness

While slightly different from inattentional blindness, it’s related. The experiment participants often do not notice changes in a scene, especially if they are interrupted by a camera pan or a blink.

Resource: Rensink, R. A., O’Regan, J. K., & Clark, J. J. (1997). To see or not to see: The need for attention to perceive changes in scenes.

Avoiding the UX errors — applications & tips

1. Overstuffed sandwich of interfaces

Users can miss essential features or information on web pages and apps if they are overwhelmed with too many elements, just as participants missed the gorilla when they were counting passes. It is possible for users to overlook essential features or functions if the interface is cluttered. That’s users on cluttered web pages. They’ll miss the point (or the gorilla).

Quick tip: Don’t play hide-and-seek with features. Use the essential elements on the webpage or app. Keep it simple, like Substack’s newsletter page “Hey, wanna subscribe?” page.

Author's Substack newsletter sign-up page

2. Banner blindness (or, “Look, Squirrel!”)

Users have evolved!

They now have the superpower to ignore the top and sides of a website completely. Why? Ads happened. Essentially, users have trained themselves not to pay attention to the top and sides of websites where advertisements are typically displayed. Placing something crucial in these typical “ad areas” is like throwing it into the Bermuda Triangle. Users ignore the content even if it’s not an advertisement.

Quick tip: When you got something important (e.g. information or CTA buttons), do not place them in areas where users are accustomed to ignoring them.

3. “But It’s Right There!” Syndrome, aka assumption of user focus

There is no guarantee that the user will see something just because it appears on the screen. For example, if a user is filling out a form on a website and an important notice is on the side, they miss it if they are busy typing away in a form.

Quick tip: Make sure vital information is in the users’ focus area, so place them contextually. If necessary, interrupt users to ensure that they get the info — grab their attention.

4. Notification overdose

You know how after the 50th “Ding!” from an app, you just want to fling your device? That’s notification fatigue. It’s real. It’s here. Save the dings for something worth it. Because if users receive too many notifications from an app, they start to ignore them due to overload, similar to how we can miss unexpected events when we are overloaded with information.

Quick tip: Notifications are like spices. A dash here and there will do. Limit notifications to the essential ones, and switch up the spices when needed. Try different methods to get the users’ attention, like varying the notification sound or visual cue.

5. “Didn’t it used to be orange?” effect, aka change blindness in updates

If an app or website undergoes a minor redesign, users don’t notice changes unless they are explicitly pointed out. Especially if they are accustomed to using the platform in a particular way.

Quick tip: Whenever you roll out new stuff or a change, guide and highlight it clearly for users so that your users aren’t left playing detective.

The way forward

The path to a killer user experience and intuitive user interface is paved with understanding these cognitive quirks. To catch issues caused by inattentional blindness, always, always, always test your designs on real, living, breathing humans.

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