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Distinction is for Attention

This story is about the Usability of the world around us, and why we only want to see what we need to see.

Stop for a moment and listen to every sound you can hear around you. Stop reading this article. Close your eyes. The next paragraph can wait.

Come on. Just do it.

Chances are certain that there is a lot you weren’t listening to before. Even in a very quiet room, there are sounds everywhere—from outside, from inside, from your stomach, the ringing in your ears. It could be that now those sounds have your attention and you can’t ignore them like you just were. Sorry about that.

Believe it or not, we hear these things all the time, but we just don’t listen. Listening to everything we hear is enough to drive a person crazy. Not a joke. In 1961, clinical psychologists, Andrew McGhie and James Chapman theorized (in Disorders of Attention and Perception in Early Schizophrenia) that people diagnosed with schizophrenia have a particular sensitivity to noise. In fact, they listen to pretty-much everything they hear. Since then, other studies have seemed to confirm that “Patients with schizophrenia frequently report difficulties paying attention during important tasks, because they are distracted by noise in the environment.”

The sound of silence. ResearchGate.

The human brain is a pattern-finding machine, so if someone is listening to everything they hear, their brain will work overtime to make sense of it all. In extreme cases, the brain may even get so desperate that it manifests voices where none actually exist. At least voices make sense and can quiet the din. Crazy but true.

Fortunately, relatively normal brains have a capacity to filter-out most of the noise around us. Unfortunately, while maintaining sanity is important, maintaining survival is important too, and many of the sounds around us are there to alert us to danger or cue us to prosperity, as in the sound of an approaching car (or predator) we can’t yet see, or the faint rustle of tonight’s dinner off in the brush. For this reason, our brain isn’t just putting on earplugs, but is sifting through what it hears and alerting us to listen to what it deems important.

Our eyes do the same thing. Just as there are noises everywhere, there are billions of things to see. And just like how our brain sifts through the noise, our brain sifts through the sights too. Again, if we really looked at everything we saw, we’d probably wander into traffic agog at the wonder of it all, but fortunately for us, even if we do, a quick glance will notice an oncoming car before we even know it’s there. In fact, our vision is faster than our thought, and for good reason. Splat.

There is a concept called Pre-attentive Processing which explains why and how our brain sifts through noises and sights, and is even involved in the instantaneous reaction to something we touch which is just a little too sharp or hot. These are responses of our subconscious, when our brain is doing the hard work to keep us sane and safe—usually without us even knowing.

The following animation is a demonstration of how pre-attentive processing works with what we see. Pay close attention to how the test gets progressively more difficult as it goes from color to shape and then to shape and color.

The point of the demonstration is to illustrate how the human brain uses a system to make sense of the visual stimuli it receives. Color is obviously important and readily identified, but so too is shape (to a lesser degree), and boundaries (not demonstrated here). It’s almost as if our brain is going down a checklist to determine what is important enough to get our attention.

Obviously, this sort of pre-processing is worthwhile in keeping us sane and safe, but since it is happening anyway, then it’s also worthwhile to exploit in getting people’s attention. In fact, traffic lights play into the pre-attentive processing of our lightening-quick ability to detect among a series of colored lights, as does our laser-fine detection of boundaries notice the stark white lines edging our lane on the highway, and even the extra weight we notice every time we encounter a bolded word. Attention!

So then, imagine what happens when your presentation slide or chart is like a mass of boring circles and squares of the same color without any distinction. And then imagine you want people to see what’s important…

A standard output from Statista Statistics Portal.

The chart above was bandied-about recently as the US government released news that the Gross Domestic Product had recorded a 4.1% increase in the second quarter of 2018. Debate about the significance of that number was challenged and bolstered by charts meant to illustrate the context. But what should we be looking at? Our pre-attentive processing would probably not tick a single box of discovery when sifting through that noise. There is nothing remarkable to see, move along.

But what about this?…

The vertical striping has been removed, the y-axis lines too, and the dates have been simplified and categorized as a block of color our eyes now see as a single unit. Now there is no question what we should be looking at, and we see it before we even know where to look.

Usability dictates that the things we make should align with our human way of thinking (rather than the other way around), and what better way to honor this than to make our audience think a little less than they have to. After all, they may have no idea what point you are trying to make, and unless it’s a snake that could bite them, they may not even see it in the midst of everything else around them. So make it obvious. Do the sifting. Obvious is our friend.

This is one in a series of articles meant to relate Design and Usability concerns to anyone who may not be experienced with such things but needs to use them anyway. These articles have a particular emphasis on how to make data visualizations and PowerPoint presentations more usable for an audience — because the audience is the most important reason we make these things.

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Usability for Users

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Peter Sylwester

Peter Sylwester

Sent from a future where everyone thinks as slowly as me.

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