Innovation Psychology: Do I have your Attention?

We live in a very noisy world.  Tweets, texts, E-mails, and meetings fill our days, while new products and services vie for our money and attention.  This attention overload is a challenge for innovators.  Even if we have brilliant, well executed ideas, unless they are seen by potential customers, we are doomed to failure.

This makes attention an important, and increasingly scarce resource.  So in this blog, I’ll talk a little bit about the science of grabbing and holding attention, and a few ways we can leverage this knowledge.

Attention Operates Below Our Awareness:  We consciously control far less of our attention than most of us realize.  Certainly, we can direct our attention, and look for specific things, but a lot of what guides our attention is automatic and occurs below our awareness.  It’s why when we are busy doing something, we rarely have to think about where to look.  Have you ever wondered why you hear someone mention your name in a nearby conversation at a party, even though you were not listening to their conversation?  Or why you catch a glimpse of a spider running up a wall out of the corner of your eye, when you weren’t looking in that direction?   It’s your unconscious effectively multi-tasking for you.  Our senses evolved before our big, complex brains, so the mechanisms that control attention don’t always need conscious direction.  However, understanding ‘unconscious’ processes can help us to grab and hold attention when we need to.

Universal Attention Grabbing Cues: Attention may not be ‘conscious’, but it is ‘smart’.   What grabs attention changes depending upon context, our goals and past experience.  This means that there is not a simple top 10 list of what grabs attention.  Instead, different cues work at different places and times.  If we are hungry, we are more likely to notice restaurants as we drive down the freeway.  Or things that are unexpected, or stand out from our surroundings catch our eye.  Of course, a charging lion, or somebody screaming ‘fire’ will always grab attention, and there are ways to leverage this that I’ll talk about later.   However, in many situations, context and history are key.

Vision: All of our senses contribute to where we pay attention, but I’m going to focus mostly on vision today.  This itself is a big topic, described in far more detail in Don Hoffman’s excellent book, Visual Intelligence1.  Here I’ve just highlighted a couple of insights I think are useful for innovators:

Now you see it, Now you don’t. We don’t see as much of the world as we think.  At any one moment in time, our high acuity vision only covers an area about the size of our thumbnail held at arms length to our body.  What we see with our minds’ eye is created by our brain, which stitches together these high acuity snippets with low resolution data from our peripheral vision, and then uses memory to fill in the gaps.  The problem is that this creates an illusion of seeing more detail than we really do.  The unfortunate result is that someone performing a familiar task, or who is distracted, may therefore be completely blind to innovations we’ve placed on websites or store shelves.  A great illustration of this is Simon and Chabris’ Invisible Gorilla video2.  Many of you will be familiar with this, but if you aren’t, it exposes the frailty of vision beautifully.

Incidentally, this invisibility problem is often compounded by research, where panelists typically pay more attention to the test environment than its real life equivalent.  They therefore see new offerings in research that will be effectively invisible in the real world.

So, we need to find ways to make the invisible visible.  The good news is that there are numerous things we can do to tip the odds in more our favor:

1, Play Cookoo. We automatically look for something where we’ve found it before.  We look for shoes on floors, lights on ceilings, and products in supermarkets where we found them last time.  It’s not easy for the new guy on the block, but if you can grab space from something you want to replace, customers will probably see you.

2.  Mimic the Signpost. Another short-cut people take to find things is to use signposts.  These probably harks back to our evolutionary past, when certain plants would grow near water or other landmarks that could be easily seen from a distance. In a supermarket today we might look for Coke’s red as a quick way to find the soda isle, or Tide’s orange for detergents.   The challenge is to borrow some of this signpost without getting drowned in it.  More on that later.

3.  Sound The Alarm. Some things will grab our attention, pretty much wherever we are.  Evolution has primed us to notice leaping predators, snakes, angry faces, color combinations like orange and black, or non-visual cues like screams, or the smell of death.  These grab attention, but of course our instinct is to automatically avoid them.  However, with enough investment in advertising, the help of a safe environment, and manipulation of imagery to make it non threatening, we can exploit these cues.  Tony the Tiger is a great example from the cereal isle, but this is not easy, and I suspect it is always going to be difficult to translate attention into purchase if we start with hairy tarantulas or the smell of carrion

There are of course more positive cues that also grab attention.  We tend to notice where other people are looking, or what they are moving towards or away from.  Human faces, sex, flashing lights, areas of high contrast, and movement all stand out.  However, to work for us, they need to stand out from the background noise, and help, not hinder making our innovation more intuitive.  Sticking half naked people on a new coffee maker may grab attention, but may make the reason to buy it less, rather than more intuitive.  Another challenge is the Times Square Effect.  One product with a flashing light may stand out, but if effective, it can create an arms race, where competitors follow, and the entire retail environment becomes peppered with flashing lights. Nothing then stands out, and everyone is investing in lights that add no real value to the customer.  Likewise, adding a face to a pack may grab attention, but if everyone does it, it is just a crowd!

One answer is more subtle cues that also attract attention.  Things like natural scenes, eyes, animals, or even abstract representations of them can do this.  They may also avoid arms races, because they operate largely below the awareness of both customers and competitors.

4.  Signal to Noise.  If you control a space, one option is to simply reduce the amount of noise so that your innovation stands out. Apple and some high-end retailers do a brilliant job of this.  Of course, most innovations don’t have this luxury but, can still exploit signal to noise effects; sometimes in surprising ways.   For example, in a category that explodes with color, simple monochrome may stand out, and if it retains enough other category norms in its design, also be intuitive.

Turning Attention into Sales. Being seen is not enough.  Turning noticibility into a sale requires customers to see, understand and want us.  Imagine a customer looking for his usual shampoo in its usual spot, but we’ve replaced it with our innovation. It is a Brand Managers dream that the shopper will stop, pick up the new product, diligently read the on-pack copy, and be ‘persuaded’ to try it.  However, in the real, time constrained world, he’ll more likely ignore it, and scan the area for what he originally wanted.  Worse, he may mentally categorize it as an annoying distraction, and unconsciously deselect it in the future.  It’s therefore critical that potential customers intuitively know what we are, and why they should buy us.  Not easy, but one tip is to be both new and old at the same time.  Mix signpost elements and category norms with new elements that help tell our innovation story.  Avoid the temptation to look completely different to the rest of the category.  We may stand out, but in many cases, we’ll be hard to understand and mostly ignored.  Of course, this is also where advertizing can help.  Familiarity will make the new more intuitive, and perhaps part of a customers shopping goal. However, ‘teaching’ is expensive, and it’s cheaper if we can design cues to make in new, yet intuitive, and let the customer do the work of understanding !

  1. Don Hoffman (1998) Visual Intelligence.  Norton
  2. Chris Chabris, Dan Simons

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A twenty-five year Procter & Gamble veteran, Pete has spent the last 8+ years applying insights from psychology and behavioral science to innovation, product design, and brand communication. He spent 17 years as a serial innovator, creating novel products, perfume delivery systems, cleaning technologies, devices and many other consumer-centric innovations, resulting in well over 100 granted or published patents. Find him at

Pete Foley




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