My grandfather was a gruff old man, who’d lost a leg working in the mining camps of Montana. He was also an expert fly fisherman; he’d take me out to the stunning mountain rivers around Missoula, Montana and show me how it was done. Recently, I’ve been developing a model of attention evolving during a product interaction — which I call the “catch-hold-release” model of attention, in his honor.

In short, products are constantly in a fight for their users’ attention, and each interaction between a product and a user goes through three distinct stages. User attention is the fish we seek, especially when designing products for behavior change (my day job and frequent topic for writing). So, here’s how you do it.

Catch

In order to be used, products must first capture their users’ attention. In a previous blog post, I talked about some of the characteristics of the product that can earn it attention - building strong associations with existing positive experiences, becoming part of the environment, providing something new with each interaction, etc.

For a fly fisherman, those characteristics correspond to crafting the right fly (my grandfather made his own, by hand) so that it looks like what the fish already love, placing it in the view of the fish, and varying the path of the fly across the water.

Product characteristics are vital. But, there’s a lot more that the company needs to do when it deploys and positions the product.

Your product competes with every other thing in the environment that might catch your users’ attention (when fishing: real food, other fish, etc.). You must carefully plan out the circumstances of your interaction, so your product reaches users at times they aren’t overly distracted, and they are in the right mental state to respond. For rainbow trout, that’s a particular time of day and weather – what is it for your product? You must learn enough about your users to know those moments of opportunity.

In the catch phase, your main challenges are providing something worthy of attention, and knocking out (or avoiding) the competition.

Hold

Ever try to hold onto a fish? It’s slippery as all heck. The same is true for our attention – as human beings, we’re constantly scanning our environment, and get distracted. Users leave our websites and applications for trivial reasons (a page taking a second too long to load). We can’t change that; that’s just how our minds work.

Holding onto attention is fundamentally a different process than capturing it. And that’s the second phase that any user-product interaction goes through.

To hold onto attention, analyze the user’s interaction with the product and look for the places where attention can slip away. Moments of frustration or confusion. Moments of completion where it feels like a natural stopping point. And, moments when the outside world intrudes and draws the user away. One thing I really like about the gamification literature (imperfect as it is) is their focus on tracing the ups and downs of the user experience while interacting with a product.

In the hold phase, your main challenge is simply to hang on – defend the users’ attention against distractions, and identify shortcomings of your product where it allows users to become distracted.

Release

You can’t hold onto attention forever. But how you release that attention largely determines whether you’ll ever be able to get it back.

Whether you’re releasing a fish back into the stream, or into a creel, you don’t just let go of the fish. You need to carefully remove the hook first, and let go at the right moment.

What’s the right way to release attention? Intentionally. Don’t exhaust the user with too many things to do at once and just expect them to leave whenever they are tired. Decide what are the beneficial stopping points at which the user will have experienced the best of the product, and want to come back (ok, this doesn’t work with fish). They’ll choose when to leave, naturally – but you can make those choices good ones, by explicitly thinking through what they mean for the next interaction.

In the release phase, your main challenge is to end the interaction at the right moment.

———

From what I’ve seen, every software product-user interaction goes through these three phases. Often the “catch” phase is an inefficient use of brute force (aka: fishing with dynamite), or left to chance (the user comes to you). And, the release phase is left too often based on happenstance or exhaustion.

But, our products can do better – by planning out their strategy at each phase along the way – to catch user attention more effectively, hold onto it so the user can experience the value of the product, and release at the right moment so they’ll come back.

-Steve

PS: Thanks, granddad. I hope there are pristine mountain streams where you are now.