Perception in Visualization

by Kasper Tidemann

I’ve been working intensely on user interfaces the past couple of years. From improving and adding tiny details to developing everything from scratch, it’s always a challenging proposition to obtain the kind of balance and intuitiveness that result in an immediate understanding whenever somebody looks at what you have created. There’s no recipe set in stone for achieving this.

That said, digging into the field of human-computer interaction reveals some interesting studies conducted from way back at the infancy of computer science and onwards up until today. Some of these studies borrow from the field of vision research, introducing the term known as pre-attentive processing:

For many years vision researchers have been investigating how the human visual system analyses images. An important initial result was the discovery of a limited set of visual properties that are detected very rapidly and accurately by the low-level visual system. These properties were initially called pre-attentive, since their detection seemed to precede focused attention.

The above quotes an interesting paper, Perception in Visualization, by Christopher G. Healey. Understanding how the visual system analyses images – or imagery as seen on the web based on HTML and CSS – is a key piece in creating the magic touch of a user interface.

Worth noting is the part about change blindness discussed in the paper. Change blindness is something we all suffer from in the sense that we have a hard time identifying changes in images over time unless these changes are animated. This paves the way for finally ditching the notion that animations are superfluous eye candy – they are most certainly not.

I recommend reading the entire paper for more insight into perception and for improving your design skills as a whole.