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Stealing Focus

Interrupting a Person's Flow Is Never a Good Experience

14 Jul 2023

One of the worst sins of a multiple concurrent app desktop environment is what I refer to as "stealing focus."

This lousy experience used to be more prevalent in websites that had decided that ALL THE POPUPS before reading an article was the way to go. Substack still does this by interrupting you with a signup form after you've read maybe two sentences to two paragraphs. [See the screenshot attached, with apologies to John Robb, an author I enjoy and subscribe to on Patreon. This screen was just the first example I could find.]

As a user, I have not yet been convinced that I like this author, this content, or this site, and they shroud the page with a form demanding penance in the form of your email.

But now, these pains have started popping up in the operating system. Developers are convinced that THEIR notification should outshine all other things on the system, and it pulls you from your current flow to deal with a trivial, often irrelevant, notification.

For example, you're typing an email, and suddenly the browser jumps to the front, telling you that a tab you forgot about is about to log you out. Okay. Great. Thanks.

This event should have happened in the background, and notifying me disrupted my mental model and flow. This concept isn't just something I dreamt up in a fever dream of UX happiness. Apple's Human Interface Guidelines specifically say

"Avoid changing focus without people's interaction. People rely on the focus system to help them know where they are in your app. If you change focus without their interaction, people have to spend time finding the newly focused item, delaying their current task." 

That's changing focus WITHIN a single app—we are not even looking at jumping between apps.

These lousy experiences are dark user experience patterns, many trying to increase a metric important to the company (e.g., more email signups). These metrics all revolve around keeping the user in the platform's ecosystem as long as possible to exploit them and their data more fully and to the end goal of more revenue.

Over time, this results in the opportunity for a competitor to come in and provide a better experience, and while their raw numbers may be lower, their goodwill and customer experience will far exceed the Las-Vegas-Strip style of stealing focus and noise.

Sunset photo by zenad nabil on Unsplash