Focus Causes Change Blindness

Jan 25, 2008
by:   Tim Stanley

Focus or stress causes us to overlook things we would normally notice (inattentional blindness).  When people focus too much on one thing, people don't notice other changes.  Take the video example below that illustrates this example.  There are five changes that occur during this video.


What if you have a project, and you want to communicate a change. How can you be sure that people will correctly observe and act on the change accordingly? The first obvious answer is to have a change control process.  But even then, changes that are identified still get lost if the information is too much to process, or it it's not clearly presented. I've found the following techniques useful from my own personal experiences and projects.

  1. First, be aware that inattentional blindness or change blindness exists.
  2. Minimize other distractions when presenting information about changes.  If changes are presented when other priorities have focus, the changes will be lost.
  3. Minimize the quantity of changes presented at any given time.
  4. Provide breaks (hours, days) between blocks of changes.
  5. Give ample time between changes for people to evaluate the impact to other systems or processes.
  6. Clearly identify visually in distinct colors or blocks any changes.
  7. Break out specifically changes separate from the overall context of other documents, or e-mails. 

In software development projects, I have witnessed both within my own software development and within all software development teams a phenomenon I've not seen documented in any software development process. There is a period of time between when a development team has completed a release and when within days of not working on the code on a day to day basis, without performing any code reviews or other analysis, issues are identified that need to be further tested or changes made in code to resolve code or design issues.  The only thing I've been able to attribute this too is too much information during development which when removed allows the developer to focus on things more clearly and these things then come to light.  I now plan for these "aha" moments in my software development projects.

Any successful project has changes that occur from the begging to the end of a project.  Too many changes presented with other priorities will be lost and won't get successfully delivered.  Be aware of change blindness so your projects don't get caught blind.

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