With more than 2 billion websites on the internet—all of which are vying for consumers’ attention—the brands and web designers working on these need to continually find new ways to attract and retain their audience’s attention. As internet users themselves, web designers understand that the daily barrage of content on the internet can be fatigue-inducing and counter-productive.

To solve this problem, web designers turn to research done on cognitive psychology to understand how human attention spans work. By having a better grasp of what grabs people’s attention, web designers can find ways to cut through the noise and reach their target audiences.

What is attention?

Most researchers agree that humans have a finite amount of attention that can be used in any given situation. For the most part, humans are excellent multitaskers and can focus on multiple events at once. Mileage may vary among individuals, but the amount of attention that can be spent will peak at some point.

For example, the act of driving an automatic transmission vehicle requires that a driver maintain their eyes on the road, hands on the wheel, and their feet controlling the brakes or the throttle. If that’s not demanding enough, a driver needs to focus on the traffic in front and simultaneously glance at the side and rear-view mirror when making a turn, changing lanes, or backing up.

But if humans are such good multi-taskers, why are car accidents due to distracted driving commonplace? This is because the human attention span is limited, and trying to place too many attention-grabbing elements in front of a person’s face is bound to cause confusion and errors in judgment. This fact holds true for both driving and web design.

Distracted driving causes accidents, leading to injuries, and even death. Having a messy web design is thankfully not fatal, but it will surely confuse your users. If your website design is too cluttered, then the chances are that your users will close the tab and go somewhere else.

Applying visual hierarchy in web design

With this in mind, is the simplification of web design the answer to attracting and retaining users’ attention? Well, in a certain sense, the answer is both yes and no.

As we mentioned, too many attention-grabbing elements will confuse and turn away web visitors. That being said, a bare-looking website will gain even less attention and can appear unfinished.

The real key to attracting and retaining attention in web design is establishing a clear hierarchy of elements. Effective web design communicates a clear path of action through effective use of graphics, colours, typefaces, font sizes, copy, and even sound. This doesn’t mean forcing your user to a linear experience: most web users appreciate a dynamic experience that puts them in control.

To create a clear hierarchy, ensure that the most critical content—usually the call-to-action—is seen within a few seconds of loading the page. The other details can then cascade in decreasing order of importance.

Pro Tip: There are many ways to achieve visual hierarchy. While more prominent elements are undoubtedly attention-grabbing, relying on that alone will make for boring design!

To spice up your website design, incorporate other techniques and elements, like colour choice, spacing configuration, and composition techniques—such as the rule of thirds or the rule of odds.


In his 1890 book, The Principles of Psychology, psychologist and philosopher William James defines attention as the “withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.” This means that to grab your audience’s attention, your content needs to pop out to the degree that it forces your audience to tune out others.

By creating hierarchy in your design, you can ensure that the right elements pop out in the order you intended, making it clear to the visitors what you want them to do.

Lethal offers excellent website design in Perth, Western Australia. We focus on empowering small to medium-sized businesses by helping them dominate their industries through the use of results-driven strategies. Get in touch with us today and get a free web design quote!