It’s Oh So Fascinating

In the last week I’ve been getting deeply interested in the interplay between cultural interpretations of environments and the biological responses to things like signage and all things shiny. I was asked what store displays I hoped would vanish in the coming years and I mentioned the now-redundant, bombastic, loud promotional pieces found in so many stores.  The Fox News of retail design is how I phrased it.  But my one smart-assed comment had meaning behind it. Most retail design has become painfully loud and may in fact be having the opposite affect we want.

Human beings have a remarkable ability to concentrate and focus on tasks, movements, objects, etc. It is a built-in survival program of our distant ancestors that makes us “fascinated” by certain things. 
This involuntary attention is a primordial mechanism that alerts us to the environment even as it helps us learn and interpret what’s going on around us. It allows us to stick with a project and think through tasks, making modifications and developing advanced concepts.  But too much concentration can be a dangerous when you’re often prey as well as predator.

For most of human existence (indeed, all existence), we have been hardwired to pay attention to those things in our environment that might kill us. Even now, when we are concentrating on reading for example, we have an automatic override that forces us to quit concentrating on our “higher thinking” and involuntarily notice what is going on in the world. It’s why we jump in slasher movies or when loud sounds come out of nowhere. And ultimately, this is a good thing when you consider the alternative.  Violence is something that automatically grabs our attention. So does sex. So does food. So do beautiful or dangerous places. In the right environmental context, this system works wonderfully.  But a good thing can sometimes be too much.


Death by Fascination

The catch is that there are limits to how much we can process. When Fascination is in control, we respond to what’s happening when it happens. The shinier, louder or more distracting something is, the more we respond. The more it grabs us by the guts the more we respond. Our attention bounces from one stimulus to another. 

Advertisers and retailers have been relying on this basic principle for years. 
When we are surrounded by an array of “me to,” explosive images, sounds, smells, etc., our ability to think clearly and make reasoned decisions drops. We grab what we need and we’re out the door.

But culture often intervenes. Context and culture provide us with techniques to dismiss or at least push aside our animal instincts. To focus on what we deem important, to avoid overwhelming fascination with all things loud and shiny, we rely on Directed Attention.

Directed Attention allows us to step back, consider, make alternate plans, resist, refocus, put the current razzmatazz up against our values and goals, and in general advance from a rigid chain of stimulus and response into a more decision-based frame of reference.

Softening the Situation

But hard fascination has a flip side. It’s studious twin is “soft fascination.” We aren’t attracted to big, loud extremely noticeable things alone and our attention can be captured by quieter things. Soft Fascination is also a form of involuntary attention, but it relies on our large brains more than our guts. Our attention can be drawn in by small, often rhythmic, natural events and subtle changes in the environment. The sound of a softly running river, rocking a child, people walking on the street, the change of shadows, tinkering with a simple gadget they are all examples of soft fascination. This kind of fascination is often calming and enjoyable (whereas hard fascination can be decidedly jolting), and we can lose ourselves easily. One of the interesting things about it is that it can be time consuming and often deeply engaging. It produces “slow memory,” a kind of reaction that draws a person back to the same place again and again. Unlike hard fascination, with its short span of engagement and explosive nature, soft fascination produces something more meaningful and enduring.  Additionally, whereas hard fascination is all about stimuli, soft fascination can and is run through the cultural interpretations we all carry. Not only is rocking a child soothing, it also feeds the need to be a good parent, demonstrates human caring and signals our need to break from the tasks of daily existence and embrace a simpler life.

Fascinating Retail

So what does this mean for retailers. For many years, particularly in big-box settings, retailers have tended to shout at their shoppers.  End caps jut into aisle transitions, breaking the flow of movement. Signs are bright, big and unavoidable. And that worked fine for a time. But there are two problems with hard fascination. First, the human brain can only process so much stimuli before it starts to shut these things out.  It looks for patterns eventually all those stimuli simply become the backdrop to a cognitive frame that says “ignore the loud stuff.”  That means the big, bombastic formats simply stop working, or in order to work they need to become so overwhelming that they drive people away.  Second, this sort of retail format is designed to thrive on the need to procure goods.  It is a one-off event rather than a long-term experience.  Remember, the memory is of the various stimuli, not the environment in its totality.

What this means is that designing a retail for soft fascination produces similar involuntary responses, but it also produces memories that are inviting and enduring.  That means you develop loyalty amongst your shoppers, who then become advocates.  You create a sense of storyline that people can easily slip into embrace as their own.  More importantly, you create a place that can be shared. Long-term customers do not shop alone.  Consumers do, but not customers. The more people shop as a social unit, be it friends conducting retail therapy or parents having a family outing, the more likely they are to purchase. Not just once, but again and again.  Soft fascination leads to a sense of destination. And that leads to sales.


Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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