By Kirk St.Amant | STC Fellow
This column examines how cognitive factors can affect technical communication and design processes. Email the editor at email@example.com.
Successfully sharing information involves holding and keeping an audience’s attention. Yet the dynamics of attention are not random. They reflect how the brain processes information. Understanding these factors can help technical communicators create effective materials for different users.
Dynamics of Attention
Attention is a matter of sensory input. Our senses continually take in more information than our brain can actually process. Our minds address this situation by ignoring certain sensory information and paying attention other kinds of input. This means no one pays attention to everything. So what attracts and holds our attention? It depends on whether we are looking for a specific item.
We usually move through our days not searching for specific things. This means that what attracts and holds attention is often a matter of contrast. Imagine you are walking down the street not really looking for any particular thing. Suddenly, you notice a red flash and immediately look in that direction and focus in on what the item is. Why did it attract and hold your attention? Because it contrasted with everything else in that environment.
The color itself is not attention-getting; the way it contrasts with its surroundings is. If you were walking through a space where everything was red, no one thing would attract your attention because everything looks the same. In such situations, it would be more drab-colored—grey or tan—items that would stand out and draw your attention in that setting. But contrast isn’t everything when it comes to attention.
Focus and Attention
Let’s change the scenario. You are walking down the street looking for a Starbucks coffee shop where you will meet a prospective client. As you move through that space, you are focused on finding one specific thing—the iconic logo that identifies a location as a Starbucks. In fact, you are so focused on finding that design, you almost miss the flashing red “Don’t Walk” sign and narrowly miss stepping out into traffic. How did this happen?
Your attention was so focused on looking for and finding one specific thing, your mind blocked out sensory input not connected to that task. In this way, items that readily catch attention in one setting (e.g., flashing red signal) can be overlooked in others.
So what does this mean for technical communicators?
Implications for Design
Consider interface design. You need to design an interface that draws a user’s attention to a part of the screen where a feature is located. How do you do it? It depends.
If the task and the interface are new to the user, contrast is key. The related interface area needs to contrast markedly from other parts of the screen. This design will draw and hold the user’s attention to instructions like “Click Here.”
Now, imagine the interface is for an upgraded version of an application the user is familiar with. How does this affect design in terms of attention? In this case, the user expects certain aspects of the interface—those associated with a previously performed task—to be designed in a certain way. So when using the upgraded software, the user will look for a design that matches what they’ve encountered before. The upgraded interface must mirror these design expectations. If not, it will take the user more time to find the feature, if she finds it at all.
In this case, even if the desired feature contrasts with the interface, the user might not see it, for it does not match the thing that user is looking for.
Problems can arise when both attention-getting features appear in the same interface design. In such cases, the user inherently focuses attention on looking for a specific thing—a design they’ve seen before. In this situation, however, they encounter a high-contrast feature that reflexively draws their attention, but does not mirror what they are looking for. In such cases, the mind must block the high-contrast item from its visual searching process to focus on finding a specific thing. Doing so takes extra effort, and such demand can cause users frustration or annoyance.
The same situation applies across other technical communication materials. How readers find information in printed manuals is governed by these same dynamics of attention. Such factors also affect how individuals use websites or access information via apps. As such, an understanding of these attention-related factors can help technical communicators enhance the usability of a range of communication deliverables.
Application of Concepts
What can technical communicators take from this? Three core ideas:
- Idea 1: If the item is completely new to the user, contrast is key to designing items that catch and hold the user’s attention. The greater the contrast, the more likely items will gain a user’s attention.
- Idea 2: If the item is based on something individuals have used before, create features that mirror these previous designs. The greater the similarity, the more likely items will catch the user’s attention quickly.
- Idea 3: Do not mix both kinds of design features. Doing so can distract and confuse users looking for something they have seen before, but who get distracted by high-contrast ancillary features.
The key is knowing when to use each attention-getting option based on the user’s prior experiences.
We encounter more kinds of sensory stimuli than ever before. Understanding how the brain allocates attention can be essential to navigating this landscape. By understanding the ways our brains process attention, technical communicators can create more effective materials. They can also use this knowledge to address dynamics of attention across different formats and technologies.
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Wolfe, Jeremy M. “Guided Search 2.0: A Revised Model of Visual Search.” Psychonomic Bulletin and Review 1.2 (1994): 202–238.
Wolfe, Jeremy M., Kyle R. Cave, Susan L. Franzel. “Guided Search: An Alternative to the Feature Integration Model for Visual Search. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 15.3 (1989): 419–433.