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Attention economics is an approach to the management of information that treats human attention as a scarce commodity and applies economic theory to solve various information management problems. According to Matthew Crawford, “Attention is a resource and humans only have so much of it.” 1.

What is Attention Economy?

A person looking at the screen

As content has grown increasingly abundant, and is immediately available, attention becomes the limiting factor in the consumption of information. In the past few years big data has de-throned big oil as the world’s most valuable commodity. A strong trigger of this effect is that the mental capability of humans is limited and the receptiveness of information is limited as well.

Attention allows information to be filtered such that the most important information can be extracted by the environment while irrelevant details are left out. Software applications either explicitly or implicitly take attention economy into consideration in their user interface design, based on the realization that if it takes the user too long to locate something, they will find it through another application. This is achieved, for instance, by creating filters to make sure viewers are presented with information that is most relevant, of interest and personalized, based on past web search history.


The dynamics of the attention economy incentivizes  companies to draw users in to spend more and more time on apps and sites. Designers who create sites and apps understand that their products vie for the limited resource of users’ attention in a highly competitive market. The hope of attracting attention has led to the popularity of many different design trends (that mainly degrade the user experience) such as:

  • Eye catching animations to call attention to a piece of content.
  • Busy, crowded designs where a large amount of information is shown at once in hopes one of the many images or phrases will attract users’ notice.  
  • Sites and apps are often designed to send frequent and often unnecessary notifications to boost engagement.  

Many firms understand the scarcity of our attention, and are adapting their business models to capitalize on it. For instance, music streaming services like Spotify have two revenue streams; you can either monetarily pay for ads to disappear or pay with your attention and listen to ads.

There’s also an entire marketplace for attention in which companies count their success in the amount of eyebrows they manage to raise rather than the profits they make. This is why Tesla, which has made little profit since its inception, has a market cap of about $89 billion, more than the sum of Ford’s and GM’s market caps. In the new market knowledge isn’t power, attention is.

Augmented Reality Ads

Entrepreneur interacting with augmented reality advertisement

Just being present in the marketplace isn’t enough. Companies need to find ways to uniquely break into someone’s attention. Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are all testing augmented-reality advertisements. AR technologies can impact the user experience by decreasing interaction cost, cognitive load, and attention switching.  

Augmented Reality refers to technology that incorporates real-time inputs from the existing world to create an output that combines both real-world data and some programmed, interactive elements which operate on those real-world inputs. In order to qualify for “augmented reality” the technology must:

  • Respond contextually to new external information and account for changes to users’ environments.
  • Interpret gestures and actions in real-time, with minimal to no explicit commands from users.
  • Be presented in a way that does not restrict user’s movements in their environment.

The concept of augmented reality is not a new one. An example is the automobile parking assistance system. In these systems, the vehicle’s computer calculates the vehicle’s distance from surrounding obstacles, and based on the position of the steering wheel’s position, determines the vehicles trajectory. Then the computer augments this external input, either by playing an audible noise that changes intensity and frequency as distance lessens, or by over-laying symbols of vehicle proximity and trajectory onto the rear-camera feed.  

The Google translate app is another example. It uses a phone’s built in camera to frame an area of text in the physical world and translates the text into another language.

The Future of the Attention Economy

It’s anticipated that the current trends in designing for attention will continue to evolve. Many companies will choose to create even more attention-grabbing advertisements. Automatically playing videos and un-skippable advertisements are almost universally un-popular among users, but designs continue to feature them. Ads may soon become even more immersive in the battle for users’ attention.  

What if the key to businesses thriving in the Attention Economy involves a mixture of good old-fashioned human-to-human connection aided by technology? This can be achieved by marrying big data with old-school outreach. It’s up to users to be economical with the attention economy by shunning the attention grabbers and engineers or not.

There are still no rules and regulations on how the personal data consumers hand over to companies is to be treated. Now data is being replaced by attention, and savvy marketers are manipulating what consumers’ brains are processing. There are some that say it’s overdue for rules to be implemented to govern the attention economy.

What do you think about the attention economy? Let us know down in the comments.

This article originally published on GREY Journal.

Crawford, Matthew B.
March 31,  2015
“Introduction, Attention as a Cultural Problem”