The 10-Point Attention Mapping Exercise

by | Feb 22, 2007 | Marketing

A customer’s attention: it’s exceedingly difficult to acquire, experts measure it in milliseconds, it vaporizes if mistreated, and it’s worth far more than gold or diamonds. Scared? Don’t be—it’s putty if you know how to handle it.

Attention is the most fundamental unit of design. Once you get past the color schemes, typography, layouts, graphical treatments, etc., it all comes down to guiding and shaping the viewer’s attention.

Take, for example, this classic ad from Volkswagen.

Notice how the designer made the message significantly stronger through creative restraint. The less was included on the page, the more attention each element received. The end result: you can’t ignore the ad. You’re seduced into it. You want to read it, even though it’s just a car ad. They have your attention.

Novice designers attack the attention problem in predictable ways—bright colors, big text, exclamation points—but it’s no surprise that the most proficient designers often tend to be the subtlest as well. A bit of restraint goes a long way when trying to lead the viewer around the key elements of a communication piece.

Your Business Needs an Attention Strategy

The difficult part about designing for attention isn’t deciding what to talk about—it’s deciding what not to talk about. Because you only get a potential customer’s attention for a few seconds (if you’re lucky enough to get it at all) you don’t have luxury of rambling. You have to cover your key points with both speed and strength.

This applies to all marketing efforts—even yours. You might feel that, well, your industry is a little different. People will take their time with it. You don’t need to rush to get to the point. But your industry isn’t different. Your customers are human, and humans have a lot of distractions. Regardless of your line of work, or your medium of communication, it’s essential that you maximize your use of potential customers’ attention.

Just because you’re being efficient doesn’t mean you have to be crude, of course. There’s plenty of room for elegance, subtlety, and mood when it comes to attention-based design; in fact, those are some of the strongest tools designers have for guiding a viewer’s gaze where it needs to go.

The critical lesson here: when working with designers, realize that it’s about much more than your favorite color, or looking “professional,” or communicating every possible fact about your business; it’s about attention and what you do with it.

Attention Mapping: The 10-Point Exercise

This exercise is simple in principle, but difficult in practice. It will make you think. It will make you doubt. And (most importantly), it will make you sacrifice.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Identify what is being designed. It can be a video, a brochure, a piece of hardware, a website—nearly anything.
  2. List components of the overall message. Identify everything that you wish the user knew about the item in question. Get it all out of your head and onto the paper.
  3. Cut the fat. Upon reviewing the list, you’ll notice that some items are more important than others. If you know they’re not critical to the message, get rid of them.
  4. Distribute 10 “attention points” among the message components. Don’t try to spread them out to thinly, and don’t be afraid to be generous with a particular piece of the message. If something’s important, let it be important. And remember: you’ve got 10 points—no more and no less.
  5. Clean up the list. Remove any zero scores, and resort the items by their points. Congratulations — you now have an attention map that clearly and concisely tells your business what it needs to promote in order to thrive.
  6. Obey the list. Now comes the hard part—now that you’ve identified what’s truly essential, you have to act accordingly. Work with your designers to ensure that the final product precisely follows the map you’ve created, and don’t be afraid to revise it if needed.

Hypothetical Example:

Let’s walk through a hypothetical example. Let’s say you’ve got a line of hip, stylish clothing called Aquafire, and the time has come to launch your first website.

Step One: Identify What’s Being Designed

Easy enough. We’re designing a marketing and e-commerce site for a clothing line.

Step Two: List Components of the Overall Message

There’s a lot we can do, but here’s a start:

  • Company history
  • Company vision
  • Company goals
  • Corporate team
  • Staff profiles
  • Product catalog
  • Return policy
  • Online ordering
  • Blog
  • Models
  • Testimonials
  • Affiliate program
  • Street team
  • Contests
  • Promotions
  • New seasonal lines

Step Three: Cut the Fat

Okay, okay, we’ll get rid of the fluff and figure out what might most interest or benefit potential customers right off the bat:

  • Product catalog
  • Testimonials
  • New seasonal lines
  • Return policy
  • Blog
  • Contests
  • Coupons

Step Four: Distribute 10 “Attention Points”

Hmmm. This is starting to get tricky. Here goes nothing:

  • Product catalog (2 points)
  • Testimonials (1 point)
  • New seasonal lines (3 points)
  • Return policy (0 points)
  • Blog (2 points)
  • Contests (1 points)
  • Coupons (0 points)

Return policy with 0 points? That doesn’t seem right at first, but I guess it’s necessary: I’veonly got 10 points, and the other elements are just more important.

Step Five: Clean Up the List

In order of importance, we’ve now got:

  • New seasonal lines (3 points)
  • Product catalog (3 points)
  • Blog (2 points)
  • Testimonials (1 point)
  • Contests (1 point)

Step Six: Obey the List

Now it’s time to start actually sketching out the site. Based on the list above, a layout like this might work:

(Note that the points don’t just directly translate into size on the page; their value can be reinforced through colors, lines, shapes, typography, imagery, etc.)

Classic Mistakes

Creating an attention map isn’t easy. Here are some dangerous temptations when performing this exercise:

  • Everyone’s a winner: Spreading points thinly because you’re afraid to give anything up. The result? A watered down design with no emphasis on anything, and no clear direction for the viewer.
  • Blind passion: Giving so much emphasis (e.g., 8-10 points) to a single item that the others become essentially irrelevant. If the entire Aquafire home page were about the seasonal lines, for example, the main product catalog and the blog wouldn’t be receiving adequate attention.
  • Nitpicking: If you start trying to assign fractions of points, you’ve already missed the big picture. Ten points. Keep it simple.

Living the Attention Map

As you get deeper into the process, you’ll begin to realize just how useful attention maps can be, and that you can use them not only for the big picture, but to better plan and understand individual pieces of the puzzle.

In the Aquafire example, for instance, we might create a separate attention map just for the blog section, to determine what features (comments, tags, meta data, author name, etc.) to include with each post.

By creating and following an attention map, you’ll find that you’re successfully able to manage and shape your potential customers’ attention—and isn’t that what marketing is all about?

Marketing Fundamentals 2: Target Audience

Marketing Fundamentals 2: Target Audience We're talking about the three layers of marketing, and how you want to start at the bottom by helping your target audience solve a real problem with your unique product. Then, you want to design your customer experience...

Marketing Fundamentals 1: Overview

Marketing Fundamentals 1: Overview Entrepreneurs start out with a lot of misconceptions about how business really works, and that's understandable because nobody really ever teaches them. Marketing, in particular, is one of the least understood concepts by business owners....

This is Marketing in the Real World

This is Marketing in the Real World

I’m trying to teach businesses how marketing works in the real world. I've been involved in some kind of marketing at pretty much every point for the last quarter of a century—which kind of makes me contemplate my own mortality, but whatever. For about half that time,...

Using Content Marketing in a B2B Setting

Using Content Marketing in a B2B Setting

Content marketing is a way of marketing that focuses on creating and sharing valuable content with your audience. The goal is to educate and engage your audience, so they'll want to buy your products or services. It can be used in a number of ways, but for B2B...

Don’t Let Your Marketing Get Lost in the Numbers

Don’t Let Your Marketing Get Lost in the Numbers

Measuring marketing isn’t easy, and there are plenty of challenges you’ll face when attempting to measure the effectiveness of marketing strategies and tactics. Some of the biggest challenges include:The difficulty of isolating the impact of marketing efforts:...

What’s the Difference Between Sales and Marketing?

What’s the Difference Between Sales and Marketing?

There are a few reasons people can get confused about the difference between sales and marketing. One is that the words "sales" and "marketing" are often used interchangeably, and many people may not fully understand the distinct roles and responsibilities of each....

When Does Skim Pricing Make Sense?

When Does Skim Pricing Make Sense?

Skim pricing is a pricing strategy in which a company sets a high initial price for a product or service, and then gradually lowers the price over time. This strategy is often used when introducing a new product or when there is a high level of demand for a product or...

Marketing Truths No One Will Admit

Marketing Truths No One Will Admit

In a recent thread on /r/marketing, the question was asked, "What is something no one in marketing will admit, but is definitely true?" While some of the answers in the thread were obviously snarky or pessimistic, there were also several answers that held a lot of...