Multitasking: how designers can combat the enemy of focus

What do designers need to know about multitasking and its effects on the user.

Lauren Macnab
4 min readJun 24, 2021
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

What is multitasking

Multitasking is when you are (consciously or subconsciously) focusing on two or more things at one time, for example, writing a shopping list while listening to a podcast. Doing two things at once is often associated with efficiency and productivity, but is it really such a good thing?

First, it’s important to understand that multitasking is a myth. The prefrontal cortex in the brain is the gatekeeper of focus, and it physically cannot split the workload. In reality, what the brain does is rapidly switch between these two tasks.

As you might expect, this rapid context switching leads to fatigue, stress, frustration, time pressure and increased mental effort. Studies also indicate that multitasking can reduce your IQ by 10% and productivity by 40%.

It makes you wonder why we all do it so often when the effects on our health and work are so damaging.

Multitasking and digital distractions

With the rise of the internet and smart devices, the options for us to distract ourselves from what we should be concentrating on are endless and literally at our fingertips. This wasn’t always the case.

As Neuroscientist, Adam Gazzaley puts it in his Ted Talk on the brain and multitasking, historically one media has replaced another so multitasking wasn’t as possible or tempting as it is now. For example, TV was an alternative to the radio, so we generally didn’t try to watch TV and listen to the radio at the same time.

The internet, on the other hand, has given us a multitude of different media at our fingertips within the same device. It is not uncommon for people to use the internet and be performing many actions seemingly at the same time, e.g. writing a report for work whilst listening to music, refreshing email and checking Facebook. We also frequently use different devices at the same time, e.g. watching Netflix on our laptops while checking the notifications on our phones. This rise in multitasking and cross-device usage means that users are finding it harder than ever to stay focused on a single task.

Are you unknowingly forcing your user to multitask?

Designers have often been told to make solutions that are as convenient for the user as possible. For example, providing all of the information and tools within the same UI, linking to related content to keep them moving and drawing their attention to the most important information.

However, by doing this, are we unknowingly adding to stress levels by forcing people to multitask? Knowing what we now know about its ability to increase frustration, fatigue and effort, do designers have a responsibility to our users to avoid unnecessary distractions in the products and services which they design?

Design considerations

Here are some suggestions for how you can minimise distractions and the need for multitasking in your designs:

Look over there!

Are you including too many CTA’s and signposts? There is probably a solid business case for doing so, but is it at the cost of the user’s focus and attention?

Keep them close

Do you need to send people off to lots of different resources (e.g. read more links within copy) or can you bring the pertinent content into your design? Failing that, link to the resources at the end of your content, so the user doesn’t have to click away halfway through and toggle between two or more bits of content.

Notice me

Do you need notifications that pop up at random intervals in an effort to drive people back to your product or service? This includes emails and can backfire if a user becomes frustrated with the interruptions and blocks the notifications, unsubscribes and ultimately doesn’t use your product.

Keep it simple

What are the key messages that the user needs to know and how can you make these clear in the UI? Trying to mix too many messages will distract the user from the task you want them to complete or the information you want them to remember.

Less noise

Do you have any UI components that are screaming for attention? E.g. animated banners that draw the eye while the user is trying to read copy elsewhere on the page.

Let me read that again

Attempting to multitask is hardest during tasks that require focus and attention, e.g. when trying to understand the details within your Ts and Cs. Make special efforts to keep distractions to a minimum within this type of content.

Don’t leave

Do you have to send the user to their mobile to retrieve an SMS verification code or to their email to click a confirmation link? The answer, for legal reasons, is probably yes, but avoid it if you can as sending them to another app or device is likely to lead to them becoming distracted by other notifications.

Bottom line for designers

It’s probably never the intention of a designer to force a user to multitask, but it is easy to mistake distractions for convenience. By considering whether you’re adding unnecessary hurdles early on in the design process you’re likely to end up with a more serene and focused user.

User testing is a great opportunity to assess focus and engagement. What does the user remember after viewing your design? Is it the right message or did something else take their attention? Was there unnecessary friction that led to a delay in completing an action?

By being aware of the negative impact of multitasking on user engagement and sentiment, you can fly the flag for simplicity in your organisation. Point out that by clearing a path for the user to focus on and complete a task, the business is more likely to get the outcome they want. Everyone’s a winner.







Lauren Macnab

Digital marketing specialist and digital wellness coach. Interested in how we can make digital products more ethical for users.