Designing for attention
Omar Mughal
In this article;

When Microsoft’s Consumer Insights team reported that our attention spans had fallen to just 8 seconds, it didn’t take long for the headline to go viral worldwide.

In the days that followed, a number of articles swiftly emerged debunking this myth, but whatever you thought of the story, the sentiment certainly seemed to resonate with many of us. Teachers added fuel to the fire, of this notion of an attention span crisis, highlighting the challenges of teaching the so-called distracted generation - but it seems like it’s not just Gen-Z (ages 10-24) who have a problem concentrating.

Are we really in the midst of an attention crisis?

Most of us are conscious that we probably check our phones more times a day than we care to admit. According to research by the UK’s telecoms regulator Ofcom, we check our phones on average every 12 minutes during the working day! This steady stream of constant interruptions has given rise to theories such as continuous partial attention, a term coined by ex-Microsoft consultant Linda Stone, who used the term to describe the behaviour of constantly dividing one's attention.

Some scientists say these worries about attention are a moral panic and that the evidence is shaky. But others such as former Google engineer James Williams say, “Today’s tech platforms are caught in a race to the bottom of the brain stem to extract human attention,”

It seems that this worry has not escaped the leaders of big tech either, with CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella saying:

We are moving from a world where computing power was scarce to a place where it now is almost limitless, and where the true scarce commodity is increasingly human attention.

But I just watched Netflix for 6 hours straight?

As with any good book, podcast, computer game or series, our ability to engage with content we genuinely find engaging doesn’t bare any signs of the claims levelled at us, concerning our inability to concentrate. It seems like if anything, it’s actually the opposite. If we find something we enjoy, we can focus our attention for incredibly long periods of time.

A Netflix survey found 61 per cent of users regularly watched between two and six episodes in one sitting, and a staggering 361,000 people watched the entire second series of popular drama Stranger Things on the day it was released.

What does this mean for learning & development (L&D)?

The discussion around whether or not our attention spans have indeed been eroded by big tech will undoubtedly continue to rage on, but the big social media platforms are in no doubt that competition for eyeballs is fierce and designing for engagement in a world full of distractions is paramount.

In a relatively short space of time, TikTok has risen to become one of the world's social media giants, but it has perhaps more interestingly simultaneously become one of the world's largest learning platforms too.

From maths skills to wellbeing, creators worldwide are creating educational content at a blistering rate and this has not gone unnoticed - TikTok is getting serious on education.

In 2021 they launched a $50m creator fund specifically to promote educational videos, and last year UK users will have noticed the beta test of the ‘learn tab’ appearing on their home screens . TikTok described this a place for educational content like how-to’s and tutorials, across arts, crafts, science, cooking, maths and more.

Are you not entertained?

Entrepreneur Seth Godin famously said that the focus of modern education can be summed up with one question: “Will this be on the test?”. Every year, both students and corporate learners alike, mindlessly tap through mandatory e-learning topics as quickly as they possibly can, yearning to get back to something more interesting.

But does this mean we don’t care about things like compliance or diversity and inclusion training and it’s all just one of many box ticking exercises? The data would suggest otherwise.

Benjy Kusi, for instance, better known by @benjy_lookbook, has gained a following of over 200,000 people and received 4.3 million likes in just one year for his educational videos advocating for diversity and inclusion on TikTok. It seems like our personal motivation to educate ourselves on such topics is at an all-time high, but now learners have the power to seek out the content that resonates with them and self educate for themselves.

Micro-learning 2.0

Dr Elizabeth Hidson, a senior lecturer in education at the University of Sunderland, claims that TiKTok are following an already existing trend in online learning. She says "This idea of small units of learning is already well established in online education - we call it micro-learning."

But maybe it’s not that simple. Employees have less than 25 minutes per week to actually stop and learn, and yes, micro-learning has enabled employees to fit learning around their busy schedules - but on it’s own, it does not solve for the problem of engagement.

Corporate learning teams and the big L&D players have long sought to engage distracted learners with their learning materials, but have fallen short when compared to the likes of Benji Lookbook, whom have managed to wow learners from their bedrooms. If only there were a company that could crack this perennial problem and pair expert-led micro-learning courses with hyper engaging content 😉

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