Leading the Eyes

Every good magician knows how to lead an audience’s eyes with their gestures. This allows them to make the audience look in one direction, and whilst their gaze is averted, the magician is free to perform a sleight of hand or develop his illusion.

This same effect can be used in design. Here in the UK, or at least near where I live, pedestrian road crossings are being replaced with a new generation that exploits this principle. It’s going to save lives.

The old generation had a button on the pole to start the crossing timer, then you looked across to the other side of the road to above head height where the green/red man (Walk/Don’t Walk) display was located:

Press the button on the pole

Press the button on the pole...

Then look away from the traffic

...then look away from the traffic

The new generation have the green/red man located on the pole, but crucially, your attention is directed so you are forced to look in the direction of the oncoming traffic:

New control has the wait signal in line of sight of the oncoming traffic

New control has the wait signal in line of sight of the oncoming traffic


This is fantastic, by moving the interface element that has your attention, it puts a secondary element (the oncoming traffic) in your peripheral vision. Personally, I’d argue the oncoming traffic shouldn’t be the secondary element – cars hurt more than crossing timers….

You can apply this same principle when designing software interfaces:

  • Spend time thinking about what parts of your interface will have your users attention then carefully position these so that other events can occur within the same field of vision
  • Progress indicators guide a users eyes from left to right as the percentage complete increases. Use this to direct a user’s gaze to the next element they will interact with – e.g. the ‘next’ button that will become enabled or a region that will fill with content
  • Group conceptually related elements. When laying out your interface if related controls are grouped together, your software will feel more fluid. People will look near related controls first and they’ll be happy if they consistently find things where they expect them to be.
  • If you need to lead someone’s eyes to an element that is not currently visible … make sure that you scroll it in to view!
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