External Stimuli 101: How to Capture Attention With Web Design

orientation and external stimuli

Psychology and web design is an explosive combination. When you study how the human brain processes external stimuli, then you soon realise how to capture attention and then nurture people towards completing a purchase.

However, this is much easier said than done.

Designing a website with a high conversion rate is both an art and a science. It’s an art because it requires creativity, a sense of beauty and style — a certain aptitude, mastery, and special knowledge. Creativity allows you to design a website that’s not just practical and persuasive, but awe-inspiring and breathtaking.

Designing a website is also a science because it exists in the world of tests, trial and failure, improvement, breakthroughs, psychology, and predictability. Conversion rate optimization allows you to develop an idea, and then test that idea. It’s how you know if and how your website is getting you business.

However, while we know what triggers are needed on a web page or landing page to influence a visitor to convert, very few people examine why certain things trigger a conversion. It might be a countdown timer to stop customers from abandoning their checkout or perhaps an exit intent pop-up to grow your newsletter list.

When you begin to look at why people do the things they do, you discover new opportunities to influence consumer behaviour and get higher conversion rates.

You may also begin to piece together new techniques and strategies to improve the effectiveness of your sales funnel.

To have a proficient and profitable website, you’ll need to invest time and energy in studying conversion rate optimization.

For your website to truly excel at selling products or services, consider applying psychology and neuroscience to understand customer behaviour.

Sadly it isn’t very often that United Kingdom Digital Agencies know this. So when choosing a web designer or conversion rate optimization specialist, be sure to ask them about their experience with applying psychology and neuroscience to their designs and CRO tests.

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Warning: Focus on This Now!

An important part of conversion rate optimization is about guiding visitors to focus on something specific by capturing attention and eliminating distractions.

It takes a lot of skill and knowledge about psychology to influence what people focus their attention on.

And by the end of this article, you’ll know how to use external stimuli to capture the attention of your website visitors.

External stimuli will capture attention

External Stimuli 101 How to capture attention with web design
Capture attention with external stimuli

External stimuli and their influence on the human brain is fascinating. (or at least it’s fascinating to nerds like me!)

I get a real kick out of how it can be applied to not just web design and conversion rate optimization, but the real world.

In fact, our brain is constantly bombarded by external stimuli.

We just don’t realise it because there’s so much information being captured by our eyes that our brain has to process it subconsciously.

What are external stimuli and how do they trigger our sensory stimuli?

We have six sensory stimuli: vision; smell; taste; sound; balance; touch; pain.

External stimuli capture attention by triggering our sensory stimuli.

This causes our body to jerk into action and pulls us out of our thoughts.

In fact, the survivability of humans is based on our brain’s ability to process external stimuli and trigger a response from our sensory stimuli.

It might be something dangerous or perhaps something yummy to eat.

But here’s the thing…

Our brains were wired to fear events and situations that threatened the survival of the human species that occurred thousands of years ago.

This means that we fear things like predators, darkness and tall heights far more than we do contemporary things like electricity.

Therefore, in order for your website (or perhaps advertising creative) to capture attention through external stimuli, you need to focus on the types of things that our brains are wired to respond to.

Let me repeat that: you want to specifically tap into things that our ancestors needed to survive. It might be food, avoidance or reproduction.

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External Stimuli Examples

External Stimuli Examples
External stimuli bring something to our attention such as danger.

Imagine that you are merrily strolling through a forest.

It’s getting dark as the sun begins to set.

An object emerges from the shadows with gleaming predatory eyes that shine like blood-soaked gems.

It roars with ferocity as it lunges towards you.

What do you do?

Do you stand and fight or do you run?

Let’s break this down…

  1. The shadowy object causes your body to react in order to bring the shadowy object into focus.
  2. Gleaming predatory eyes suggests to our subconscious that the beast may intend to eat you or at the very least react to your presence (do you run or slowly back away?)
  3. The sight and sound of the animal charging towards you confirms its aggression
  4. Within a split second, you make the decision to either flee or stand and fight.

However, if you were to replace the forest with a city and the animal with a car, it would not evoke the same evolutionary response.

And let’s be honest, it would be absolute pandemonium (and expensive) if a car or a bus caused people to run away screaming or to stand and fight.

Examples of External Stimuli and Conversion Rate Optimization

Most of us know that a webpage with high contrast button will have a higher click rate than a webpage that doesn’t.

We also know that colour is another determining factor in the click rate of a button.

However, most conversion rate optimization experts, marketers and web designers don’t know why.

You’ve probably guessed the answer…

A button that stands out with a high contrast colour has a higher click rate is due to external stimuli.

Neuroscientists have discovered that colour is one of the most effective stimuli to capture the attention of women.

It is believed that this is due to foraging – a task that throughout history and in most societies was/is dominated by women – because our ancestors needed to quickly and easily detect the colour of berries.

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Contrasting size and orientation

orientation and external stimuli
Note the use of orientation and size to capture attention.

Both contrasting size and orientation are smart ways to capture attention.


The size of images and text can be used to grab attention.

Researchers have found that we spend more time looking at small text.

However, our attention is initially drawn to large text. This is because our subconscious creates a hierarchy of importance based on size.

In other words, we subconsciously view big text as the most important information on a web page or landing page. (for example the title of an article or chapter)

The same principles apply to the length of a sentence.

This stands out, right?

The sentence above stands out is because the font-weight is different to other text around it and the sentence is much shorter.

Therefore, you don’t need to do anything dramatic or over the top to capture attention. In some cases, a slight adjustment to the size of elements on the page or varying length is enough.

Similarly, many landing pages use orientation as an external stimulus to capture attention. (whether the designer intended it not!)

Italic fonts, slanted page dividers and squinty buttons are examples of orientation to capture attention on a webpage.

Goal-Directed Calls to Action

People are far more likely to notice something when it aligns with their goal.

When you search for a blue stimulus, you don’t notice red stimuli.

Baluch & Itti, 2011.

For example, if you have a dedicated landing page for selling a blue shirt, then a matching shade of blue for an add-to-cart button will have a higher click rate than a different colour.

Thanks for reading External Stimuli 101: How to Capture Attention With Web Design. Be sure to come back as we continue to expand this article.

If you’re looking for conversion rate optimization services, check out our conversion rate optimization agency GoGoChimp. We specialize in delivering conversion-driven design and optimization for growing digital businesses. Our conversion rate optimization services may be perfect for your business.

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