Designers loathe to be told to design something “eye-catching”—it’s the vaguest of briefs. But for Amy Alberts, a user research manager at the data visualization company Tableau, determining the things that catch a person’s eye is an exact science.
With a masters degree in applied cognitive psychology, Alberts has done years of research on what involuntary patterns in eye movement reveal about the human brain. As a researcher at Microsoft and now at Tableau, Alberts has applied her psychology background to examine what those eye movements can teach us about interface and data design.
At last year’s Tableau Conference, Alberts conducted an eye-tracking study with the conference’s participants. She asked them to look at various dashboards—the presentation displays that show a company’s analytics—while an eye tracker traced the movement of their gaze across the page. She recently released the results of those tests in a whitepaper, which details the elements of the data visualizations and layout design that most draw a viewer’s attention.
Designers know implicitly that certain things, like strong imagery and high contrast colors, will grab a viewer’s attention. But the value of the Tableau study is that it shows that even within commonly held standards of good design, there are some approaches that work better, and more consistently, than others. “The thing that I think was interesting is that there seems to be—in this research as well as general brain research—certain elements like maps, big number, line graphs, and so on, that are more compelling than others,” Alberts says. “They draw attention faster than other ones; there’s a hierarchy.”
In tracking attention-grabbing design, this nascent science seeks to quantify user experience by viewing design and functionality through the user’s eyes.
WHAT DRAWS THE EYE? BIG NUMBERS–AND HUMANS
One of the most striking patterns that the study showed was how effective large numbers were at drawing a viewer’s attention.
The analysis showed that numbers set in large type got a lot of “visual attention”—a term Alberts uses to distinguish eye movement from actually seeing and absorbing content, the latter of which can’t be proved just from eye-trackers. Numbers set in large type were also consistently one of the first things on the page that received that attention. “A big number is the neon sign of dashboards,” says Alberts. “Eyes go to it immediately.”
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