Attention and intention: divided attention theory in interface design

Attention and intention: divided attention theory in interface design

We’ve all experienced something like this before: during a conversation, the person we’re talking to pulls their smartphone out of their pocket and starts typing on the device to send a personal message while we’re talking to them. The person’s answers then become increasingly monosyllabic and unfocused, so that the conversation cannot be continued productively. This is annoying and rude, but it illustrates very nicely how quickly we reach our mental limits. After all, both conducting a personal conversation and writing a text message on the smartphone are tasks that take up a large part of our mental resources. If several such activities are carried out simultaneously, a conflict arises because our brain can only focus on one strenuous task at a time.

The human brain has a limited supply of mental resources. These resources are usually allocated to different activities, which can be of sensory, physical or cognitive nature. Sensory activities are those in which we primarily process input passively, for example listening to music or perceiving smells. Physical activities are those in which we move little — such as typing on a keyboard — or move a lot, such as cycling or playing sports. Cognitive activities primarily consist of conscious reflection, e.g. when we think of tasks that still need to be completed. In the rarest of cases, we only carry out one single activity at a given time. Mostly, however, several actions take place simultaneously — for example, when we listen to music while driving or talk to someone while walking. In such cases, i.e. when several activities take place at the same time, our brain, which controls these processes, has to distribute its resources. This distribution process is discussed in psychology as “divided attention theory”: it is assumed that the distribution mechanism is unjust — that is, if several activities take place simultaneously, they cannot receive the same amount of mental resources. Rather, one activity is always in the foreground, so that the other one(s) move into the background.

If one follows the theory of selective attention, there is always only one task that we can process in the focus of our attention. The “Interaction-Attention-Continuum“, described by Bakker and Niemantsverdriet, combines psychological theory with interaction design and describes not only the focused interactions that take place in the center of attention, but also peripheral and implicit interactions (Bakker/Niemantsverdriet 2016: 3):

All three types of interaction can occur simultaneously when completing a task. For example, we can focus on searching for content on a website and operate peripheral input devices such as a keyboard, mouse or touchscreen. Conflicts always occur when two mentally complex interactions are performed simultaneously: nowadays, for example, this is known from situations in which people try to perform other tasks during a conversation, e.g. with the help of their smartphone. The aimless browsing of an Instagram feed can — because it is a simple interaction in the peripheral attention area — still be combined quite well with a personal conversation taking place at the same time. The focused writing of a short message, which requires more mental resources, is much more difficult during a conversation. The quality of the personal conversation or that of the written message suffer from such a struggle for the centre of attention.

Behind every interaction that we consciously initiate is a need — e.g. the need for information, for entertainment or for consumption. To meet this need, we have various analogue and digital means at our disposal. In certain situations, the choice falls on a digital medium such as a website or app because it is an available and easy way at a given time. In order to fulfil the need, we formulate intentions mentally — depending on how intensively we have already dealt with our need. For example, in order to satisfy our need for information, we can search for specific pieces information — e.g. daily news from the field of politics — or proceed unspecifically and browse through content to find out which information we are most interested in. Blair-Early and Zender describe this “intention continuum” and place the hunter and the browser at both ends of this dimension (Blair-Early/Zender 2008: 92):

The findings on attention and intention from psychological research have important effects on the conception and design of interfaces. In order not to cause conflicts in the distribution of mental resources, we have to find out which tasks are at the center of attention when using a digital product and which take place in the periphery. A profound understanding of the users is indispensable for this — and this can only be achieved if the target groups are sufficiently researched. The aim of such user research should be to answer the following questions, for example: Which tasks are in the focus of attention? Which tasks and activities are performed simultaneously? When do existing solutions lead to problems and conflicts? In addition, such studies will help to better understand the intentions of existing and potential users: Which users have specific intentions, which non-specific ones? How does the design meet these different intentions? Only those who know the psychological basics and gain a good empirical understanding of the users of a digital product can develop excellent design solutions that meet the users’ needs and lead to a delightful experience.

Bakker, Saskia; Niemantsverdriet, Karin: The Interaction-Attention Continuum: Considering Various Levels of Human Attention in Interaction Design, in: International Journal of Design 10 (2), 2016, S. 1–14

Blair-Early, Adream; Zender, Mike: User Interface Design Principles for Interaction Design, in: Design Issues (24) 1, 2008, S. 85–107

Kahneman, Daniel: Thinking, Fast and Slow, London 2012

Norman, Don: The Design of Everyday Things. Psychologie der alltäglichen Dinge, München 2016

Attention and intention: divided attention theory in interface design

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