Lead me to the point

In today’s always-on environment, knowledge providers must help audiences get to relevant information quickly and stay focused on it, no matter how complex it may be.

The world around us is competing for our attention. Just take a look and you will see people accessing content on a continuous basis.

Not surprisingly, this hypercompetition for our time also means that getting and retaining attention is tough. With that backdrop, now more than ever, it is critical to make it simple for people to find and access the content we want them to see.

There is an ongoing debate over whether the ability to focus has become a scarce resource in the knowledge age. Experts are weighing in on both sides. Paradoxically, they have found that our attention spans are now shorter than those of goldfish but that they are also growing, craving more 700-page-plus books.

We now have terms such as "transient attention" and "focused attention" to reflect these divergent theories. The former comes on fast and leads to short-term performance improvement and the latter is about consistency over time. In other words, think of these as our ability to scan versus our ability to focus. I prefer to frame the issue as navigation and focus.

Our clients come to us for our expert content. We deliver that content in a document. If we want our products to be properly consumed, we need to create them with the end-user’s mind in mind. We need to provide navigation so that clients can quickly focus their concentration on the content that really matters to them.

So how are navigation and focus achieved within our products?

To answer this, we need to understand that today’s readers scan a document in an F pattern prior to focusing in on detailed content. The Nielsen Norman Group, a research/consulting group focused on the digital user experience, recorded how 232 users’ eyes moved as they looked at thousands of web pages. The firm found the dominant reading pattern looks something like the letter F: two horizontal strips followed by a vertical strip.

The F pattern makes sense when thinking about a web page. The first horizontal scan, along the top, lets readers know the general content of the entire website. The second horizontal scan lets them know about general content on an individual page. Finally, the vertical scan allows them to navigate content so they can decide if they want to focus their attention on anything specific.

The implication for today’s abundantly rich content is simple. Provide your target audience members with easy navigation to the content you want them to focus on. It’s the only way to keep their attention long enough for them to focus on your content.

To attract and keep eyeballs on your content, start with the conclusion whenever possible. In other words, provide your key information right up front and take advantage of that first horizontal scan. Then provide vertical subheadings so your clients can easily navigate to areas for focused attention. Finally, ensure the first sentence of each paragraph speaks to that paragraph’s key point. These simple techniques will provide eye-catching navigation and the required level of focus.

For email, present your content in bullet form, with only one key fact per bullet and each bullet no more than two sentences long. This makes it easy for your client to navigate the content.

In today’s always-on environment, with information coming to us from every which way, it’s our job as knowledge providers to help our audience get to relevant information quickly and stay focused on it, no matter how complex it may be.