It’s an honest question. These days you can’t turn around without seeing another article on how short our attention spans are, or how distracted we are at work. The assumption that attention spans are getting shorter and shorter has dramatically shaped the eLearning industry, with directors of learning looking for newer and newer technologies to cater to our diminished attention spans, and content providers building the assumption into their instructional design.
Indeed, the common wisdom today is that the average person’s attention span is about 8 seconds long—down from about 11 seconds just a decade ago. According to one popular industry myth, we now have an attention span shorter than that of a goldfish! (I will plead guilty here—we here at ej4 shared around this myth as well when we first heard about it.)
If this were true, it would have some serious implications for how people create instructional materials and organize their corporate training. Content would have to be extremely short and snappy, and it would have to be “in your face” all the time just to compete with all the other sources of information.
Again, that’s what training content would have to be like if the claim of short attention spans were true. But is it?
Test “The Short Attention Span Claim” Yourself
No doubt we are highly distracted in our lives. We multitask at work and at home. We are bombarded by emails, texts, and pop-ups from our productivity tools. There are plenty of times when it seems like our attention wanders all over the place.
But stop and think of the times when you do pay attention to something for an extended period of time. If our attention spans were really so short, we would never be able to:
- Binge-watch Netflix. Seriously, haven’t you ever sat in bed for hours watching episode after episode of a show you loved? And today’s shows are much more complex and attention-demanding than those of a generation ago.
- Play complicated video games. Video games today are more like interactive movies than they are like the arcade games of our childhood. They have complex plots, and characters in those games progress through levels by performing interlocking missions and solving complex problems. A gamer can spend hours doing this, and it requires quite a bit of attention.
- Get halfway through this post. Even written content is becoming longer, thanks to the ranking that “long-form” content gets when it comes to SEO. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that long-form content now gets about twice the amount of engagement on mobile platforms that shorter content does.
All of this is amazing, because we often assume that it is technology that is contributing to our shorter attention spans. On the contrary: It appears that some of our technology actually requires long periods of sustained, engaged attention. There is even some evidence that our attention spans are getting slightly longer because of this technology.
So how can it be that our attention spans feel so much shorter? What’s really going on? And what should we really be paying attention to when it comes to instructional design?
Not Short Attention, but Distraction and Filtering
It turns out that attention spans are not getting smaller. We’re just doing more with them.
Research by Gloria Mark, professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, shows that one big thing driving the feeling of short attention spans is interruption. Mark and colleagues shadowed 36 managers, financial analysts, software developers, engineers, and project leaders for three days, recording everything they did. In particular, they paid attention to how often these people switched from one task to another.
They discovered something interesting: Each employee spent only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted with some demand on their attention, unrelated to the task at hand. What’s more, each 11-minute project was itself fragmented into even shorter three-minute tasks, like answering email messages, reading a webpage, or working on a spreadsheet. (For a longer description of Mark’s research and other cool studies about employee attention span, check out our recent white paper on the microlearning trend.)
In other words, we can pay attention for longer—if our environment lets us.
Another force at work is filtering. As more and more information becomes available, vying for our attention, people are becoming much better at making snap decisions about what information is worth paying attention to. (This is especially true of millennials, who grew up in a very information-rich environment.)
When a person spends only 15 seconds reading an online article, it is not necessarily because they are distracted or have a short attention span. Rather, it is because we have become savvier consumers of information. We can make a very quick decision as to whether the information we are getting is relevant and useful or not. And, if not, we move on.
What We Can Learn from Netflix
We can learn a lot from Netflix. In a world of distraction and filtering, Netflix manages to consistently provide entertainment content that is “bingeable.” How do they do it?
First, what makes shows bingeable is that they are engaging. They are so good! They keep us roped in, asking questions, wondering what will come next. This is a crucially important point when it comes to instructional design. What matters is not ultra-short, uber-flashy content. What matters is having content with which the viewer is engaged, always trying to make sense of what they are watching. This is why Stranger Things is more fun to watch than a flashy 60-second commercial. (Indeed, Netflix lets us get around the latter, because no one wants to watch those!)
Second, the shows on Netflix are well organized into units. You can watch a single episode and be entertained. But you can also watch three, four, or five episodes, or a whole season, all at once. Each season completes a story arc that viewers want to follow.
Likewise, if you want your learning content to be engaging, each unit has to make sense by itself and in the context of the whole. This means that you can’t just slice up a 60-minute training video into 10-minute chunks. Each piece needs to be able to stand by itself. But it also means that videos should be organized into series. They should form a coherent collection.
Third, Netflix is the king of making content easily accessible. There’s a reason why we Netflix-binge and not Blockbuster-binge: Netflix got into streaming early, bringing their content right into our living rooms—or anywhere, for that matter—at any time.
The same goes for instructional content. When learners have easy access to content, they will find a time and a place to consume it.
Instructional Content, the Netflix Way
Here’s the main takeaway: When shopping for content, it just does not make sense to look for the shortest content available. You should take a page from the Netflix playbook and look for content that is well done and engaging, that is well-organized into units that can stand alone or together, and that can be accessed really, really easily. (These are all ideas that guide ej4’s content production, by the way.)
When it comes to merely short or flashy content, remember: Anyone with a laptop or phone can create a YouTube video these days. And chances are it will be short and attention grabbing. But think: Would you really trust a random YouTube user for your employees’ training content? Would you, for example, be comfortable with an employee searching YouTube and watching a random course on, say, sexual harassment in the workplace? If you answered “No,” then you already appreciate the need for engaging, well-designed content from a reputable provider.
And, of course, we hope you will consider ej4 for that role!
Some Further Reading
Our white paper, “Microlearning: Important Trend, or Flashy Fad? What the Science Says,”talks about Mark’s research as well as the goldfish myth, along with ways to make microlearning work for your organization.
For more on making content that can “stand alone” or in context, see our earlier post “Getting Training to Stick with Bite-Sized Learning.”