The Spotlight Effect in design

A button to a designer is an amalgamation of a lot of things — background colour, font type, size, colour, padding, and terms only an expert would understand.


Vasudha Mamtani

3 years ago | 4 min read

Spotlight effect in psychology is defined as a person’s tendency to think or feel that they are being noticed a lot more by others than they actually are. In simpler terms, it means being self-conscious about how one’s looks or actions are perceived by the people around them

For instance, just yesterday I woke up hating how my hair looked. No amount of product would fix it. All-day I would catch a glimpse of my reflection and try to fix my hair to no avail.

I was extremely conscious about how everyone would perceiving this little flaw that I had fixated on, and it reflected in the conversations I had with people all day long. But the fact of the matter was that barely anyone could’ve pointed out the imperfection that I had blown out of proportion in my head.

We often tend to overestimate how much people notice the little details that we build up disproportionately in our heads.

Let’s look at the spotlight effect through the lens of design.

As designers, all of us are guilty of spending hours, and sometimes even days to make our designs pixel perfect; to find that colour scheme or the banner image that fits like a piece of a puzzle into our UI.
We critique our work over the tiniest of details imagining how our users would perceive that element.

What we fail to realise in the moment is that majority of the users who will use or browse through the application are most likely not to even register the tiny details that we obsess over.

A button to a designer is an amalgamation of a lot of things — background colour, font type, size, colour, padding, and terms only an expert would understand.
But a button to users is just that; a button. It is simply an element on the screen that is meant to be clicked.

If you were to interview your users after they’ve used your product and ask them to recollect what a certain component looked like, or if they noticed a certain pattern in the flow, chances are that they might not have the answer you’re looking for.

This is because users experience a product in its entirety. They are not able to compartmentalise their thoughts about the product the way we do while designing. What they truly care about is the job getting done. Users usually access a product with a goal to achieve or task to get to. As long as they are able to perform the actions that lead up to the task, they’re golden.

So, here are a few things to remember during your design process to dodge the spotlight effect –

1. Don’t fixate on the cosmetics —

When designing a product or a system, us designers should start identifying the moments when we start obsessing and fixating on details that might not be as important from the user’s perspective.

A lot of times we tend to take ‘pixel-perfection’ a tad too far. We iterate and recreate components that play a very small role in the entire ecosystem.

While it is important to create experiences that are perfect fits for our users, it is equally important to remember that visual elements are not the only contributors to those experiences.

As designers, we should learn to invest our time wisely. Functionality and user goals should be prioritised over other aspects of design. When we realise that we’re probably spending a lot of time and energy on fixing something that may not even need fixing, we should take a step back and redirect that energy into more important things.

2. Step-back and re-evaluate —

From time-to-time, it is important for a designer to take a step back and analyse the work they are doing/have done. When working on a certain project, it is natural to get so engrossed at every step of the way that we forget where we started from.

It is good to pause and take stock of the journey covered to get some perspective of whether the decisions made until that point and the plan ahead still continue to make sense.


This gives a designer the confidence to keep at it without doubting their design decisions at every little step; thus, avoiding the spotlight effect.

3. Collaborate and consult

It is very common to get tunnel-vision when working on a project for a while. To avoid getting a designer’s block while working in silos, it’s important to collaborate with your fellow designers.

Getting insights from someone who is not as closely involved as you are can be a refreshing change of pace. It is always a good idea to get to bounce off your ideas and concepts off your fellow designers to get out of the self-doubt zone. To understand more about the power of collaboration, refer to this article.

So, now that we know about what the spotlight effect is and how we, as designers are sub-consciously impacted by it, let’s try to consciously tackle them together!


Created by

Vasudha Mamtani







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