To See or Not to See – That Is the Question

Neil McKay

Daniel Kahneman in his book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ says that when our brain makes a decision or takes action it does so based upon observations (the known knowns) and very rarely does it take anything else into consideration (the known unknowns and unknown unknowns).

He uses an acronym to describe this.

WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is).

As an eCommerce business, you are conversing with your visitors every day. You are attempting to sell them your products. Products that you believe will enhance their lives.

The only trouble is that in all likelihood the vast majority of them do not visually perceive what you are offering in the same way that you do.

Just because you have got them to the page you want them to be on, does not mean they will see what you want them to see.

All your persuasive microcopy, scarcity, countdown timers, and triggers may be unseen, possibly resulting in your visitors not buying from you.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. You can do something about it, and here I’m going to share with you some psychological techniques that may assist you in getting seen what you want to be seen… and thereby help you to potentially increase your sales.

Before I share these techniques with you, it’s important that we understand why it is that we see what we see and why is it that we can be looking at the same thing and see it differently from the person next to us. It’s all to do with visual perception. Once you understand how visual perception works, you can apply this knowledge to your Attention & Perception A/B tests and hopefully generate some healthy wins.

First of all, visual perception isn’t easy, but basically involves two things: Sensation and Perception.

That means things that stimulate our sensors and how we perceive those things that have stimulated our sensors.

We all remember that dress phenomenon, right? Is it white and gold or is it black and blue?

Globally, people were divided. Yet they were all looking at the same thing!



Look at this picture.

If this is the first time you have seen this picture, your brain will probably be trying to make sense out of the random visual shapes, objects and colours.

Do you see the cow? Once you do see the cow, it’s impossible for you to not see the cow the next time you look at the picture. If you’ve seen this before, you’ll recognise how quickly it was for you to see the cow.


Why is it that we perceive things differently?

As an example of this, see below – this is called the Checker Shadow illusion.

Squares A and B are exactly the same colour. It’s just that we perceive them not to be because of the illusion the shadow helps to create.

Still don’t believe me? Here’s a link to the study.

What about this one:

Do you see the grey lines curve? Well in reality they are completely straight.

So why do we see things that are just not there?

For instance, see below:

In reality, there is no Dalmatian dog walking towards a spiky ball.

But we perceive it to be so. Why is that? Perception does not just occur. It’s the result of a lot of behind the scenes processes taking place in our brain. For nearly all of these processes, we are not even aware of them going on as they take place in our subconscious.

The Process of Perception

The process of perception is extremely complex.

  • It involves us looking at something (step 1)
  • We then focus on a part of that something (step 2)
  • Which then stimulates our receptor cells (step 3)
  • Our receptor cells then convert that energy, in this case light wave energy, into electrical currents (step 4)
  • These are then pushed through the eye and the optic nerve (step 5)
  • Which begins to process the information (step 6)
  • Once processed it pushes this information to the back of our brains to our primal visual cortex, where the process of perception begins (step 7)
  • Once we have perceived and recognise (step 8) the visual input, we then decide what action to take (step 9)
  • And surrounding all of this is our knowledge, which can interject at any time.

The key step is step 3 – stimulating the receptor cells!

For anything to visually have a chance of entering your brain, it needs to stimulate your receptor cells.

When you focus on something, the thing you focus on projects an image of itself onto your retina. This is basically light waves passing through your eye and impinging on your receptor cells, which are what your retina is made of.

These receptor cells are made up mostly of rods and cones.

Each have a different job to do. Right in the centre is the fovea… it’s right in the middle and is very small. It makes up roughly only 1% of your visual field (your visual field is what you can see without moving your head).

Your fovea needs a lot of light to work and when it does, its sees colour and detail.

Outside of your fovea are the rods. These don’t actually see colour and detail, but they respond to changes in light intensity.

So for example, if you are looking at a page on a website and the carousel moves, your rods, which deal with your peripheral vision, will pick this up and then pass over the image to the cones and your fovea to focus on the details.

In theory that sounds good, but the trouble is that just as your fovea is about to focus on the image in the carousel, the carousel moves and the focus is gone.

That’s important to know because if you want anything visually to have a chance of entering your brain and being perceived, it needs the attention of the fovea to be looking directly at it. Only then can it take in the light waves and project them onto your receptor cells!

Please remember that, it is a very important point.

If you want your visitors to see your persuasive message, CTAs, etc., you need to ensure their fovea can focus on that area of your site long enough for the image to register.

Some psychology techniques to help get seen what you want to be seen

Earlier on, I said I would share with you some psychological techniques and effects that may help you. Well here are five of them.

But first, I just want to add in a caveat or two.

  • Do not just copy these techniques on your site and assume they will work.
  • You first need to research your site in detail to discover what is wrong with it.
  • Once you have discovered this, then and only then should you test the appropriate techniques (of which there are hundreds out there) to help change your visitor’s behaviour accordingly.

Also, in these examples the studies were done in our eye-tracking lab. The sample size was small and the data may not hold up to significance (except for Trend Micro, where the win was big and seen across multiple countries).

I just want to demonstrate and introduce the techniques.

1. Visual cues

Our attention is strongly directed by visual cues.

This experiment for our client Trend Micro (in Germany) involved much more than just a visual cue (red arrow).

It also involved an endowment effect, a labour love effect and authoritative endorsement as well as a framing effect.

It produced a healthy uplift in sales.

2. Gaze cueing

We focus our attention on what others are looking at.

For Appleyard Flowers, we wanted to see if we could direct attention towards the ‘50% off’ offer, so we introduced gaze cueing in our variation.

It’s subjective and the sample size was relatively small, but I think it emphasises the point that you can direct people to look at what you want them to.

3. Facial distraction

We are strongly drawn to look at faces that are looking directly at us.

For this example for Manchester Airport, we felt as though the image of the lady was a facial distraction (this can also be seen in the Appleyard original image above too), so we redesigned the page. Our thoughts being, this is an action page and people are here to do a task. Don’t distract them from doing it.

The outcome of our research suggested the face was a distraction.

Additional data supported this, whereby it showed that participants saw the actual booking widget in the variation 74% quicker than on the original page.

They also interacted with the variation widgets faster too: time to first click for the variation was 5.23 seconds, vs 6.75 seconds for the original. This represents a suggested improvement of 23%.

4. Attentional bias

We pay more attention to that which has touched us.

Here, for British Red Cross, we wanted to see if we could emotionally connect with people more, and in doing so increase the amount of donations they give.

When tested with two groups of 100 individuals, the average amount that people said they would donate in the original group was £27.23.

For the variation of the design, the average amount that people said they would donate was £29.76.

A suggested increase of 9%.

This might not seem like much, but if this held true in a live environment that extra £2.50+ per donation would represent a lot of money. Potentially millions in extra donations.

5. Visual fluency

The ease with which information can be processed.

The objective of the home page is to help people find what it is they are looking for, as quickly as possible, and without delay.Therefore, why not help your visitors on their scent trail?

For Jacamo, we felt sure that we could speed this process up. We felt that the font on the mega menu maybe suffering from a form of visual fluency and that we could improve it, so we designed the following variation.

In our lab, we asked people to find ‘swim shorts’.

This is where they looked. The different colours represent different participants’ eye movements.

The result?

Well everyone found swim shorts. But they found them 34% quicker on the variation than on the original.


Ok, these are just a few examples of different psychology techniques that can be used (when appropriate) to capture the attention of your visitors, but there are literally hundreds of techniques out there.

Do your research. When you discover a problem on your site, search the web and find the appropriate technique that may help you fix the problem, aka ‘positively change your visitors’ behaviour’. Then test it, to see if it holds true.

As my colleague Professor Ben Ambridge said in a recent talk, ‘Don’t trust your data, test it.’

Please also remember that for your visitors to take in what it is you want, it’s not good enough just putting the information on the page and hoping they will see it. You need to direct the attention of the visitors’ fovea to what you want them to see.

Hopefully these techniques I’ve shared with you, and others you may find, will help you.


[1] Thinking Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

[2] Sensation and Perception by E. Bruce Goldstein.

[3] Checker Shadow Illusion

[4] Dr Bart Schutz

[5] Professor Ben Ambridge