Distractions.  They’re everywhere these days.  I’m not talking about the kind of distractions that have been around for decades like a phone call interrupting a favorite TV show or a baby crying down the hall.  I’m talking about the audible notifications we hear on our smartphones when a new Facebook post or a new email in our inbox compete for attention.  The effects of all these latest tech-driven distractions are collectively leading us toward becoming what Gartner Research calls an Attention Deficit Society.

It’s interesting, or maybe a little frightening, to think about how technology and the myriad ways we use it is rewiring our brains.  Everything we do, but especially the things we do repetitively, changes our brains a little at a time.  Research shows, for example, that a taxi driver typically develops a larger than normal hippocampi – the area of the brain that’s called upon when we recall the specific ways to get from point A to point B.

Studies have shown that, when we hear or see a notification appear on our phones, a small bit of dopamine is released into our brains.  Without getting into a lot of biochemistry details, a chemical called dopamine is released into our brains and acts as neurotransmitter.  It plays a key role in getting signals from one nerve cell to another in our brains and registering pleasure.  The ultimate effect is that each hit of dopamine adds to what ultimately becomes a sense of reward.  Essentially, each of those little dings, buzzes, numbered badges, etc. chemically reinforces the idea that something pleasurable is happening — the realization that someone is speaking to us or thinking of us and seeking our attention in some way.

On a more serious note, however, our collective attention deficit, driven by this semi-steady stream of rewarding interruptions, has become a challenge for both business and society as a whole.  In such an environment, how can a business effectively compete for the attention it needs from its customers and potential customers?  And, if it’s successful in ‘breaking through’ and achieving that attention, how does it go about keeping it long enough to sell something or build a more lasting relationship?

One of the answers is to, on a fairly constant basis, re-imagine and redesign the user experiences associated with its products and services.  This is especially true for companies that make their living online and even more so for those whose customer relationships are increasingly focused on mobile capabilities.  At the very least, every customer interaction should be evaluated to understand whether it delivers immediate, obvious utility to the user.  By delivering the value it needs to provide, both quickly and seamlessly, can help mitigate some of the need for a longer attention span on the part of the user.

Another way, depending on the nature of the interaction, is to increasingly deliver an immersive experience for the user – something that makes it more difficult or less rewarding to divert their attention to something else.  This is the opportunity that would most often be associated with capabilities based on rich content or some game-like aspect.  For me, Candy Crush is a text book example of the latter but I’ll save a post for the effect gamification has on our attention for another post – that little sound my iPhone just made tells me I have a new set of lives and can resume play!