Scientific ASIA

How mobile apps grab our attention

Researchers at Aalto University have proclaimed that what attracts visual attention to screens does not even transfer to mobile apps. Mobile phones and tablets have become necessity of our daily lives and it is ubiquitous, however empirical test has studied for the first time despite the extensive use of cell phones. This study is primarily based on how user’s eyes pay visual attention to commonly used mobile apps, designs and its elements.

Previous work on what attracts visual attention, or visual saliency, has centered on desktop and web-interfaces.

‘Apps appear differently on a phone than on a desktop computer or browser: they’re on a smaller screen which simply fits fewer elements and, instead of a horizontal view, mobile devices typically use a vertical layout. Until now it was unclear how these factors would affect how apps actually attract our eyes,’ explains Aalto University Professor Antti Oulasvirta.

The research team used a large set of representative mobile interfaces and eye tracking software programs in order to find out how users look at screenshots of mobile apps, for both Android and Apple iOS devices.

Prior research exhibited that our eyes should not only jump to bigger or brighter elements, but also stay there longer. Previous studies have indicated that when we look at certain kinds of images, our attention is drawn to the centre of screens and also spread horizontally across the screen, rather than vertically. The researchers found these principles to have little effect on mobile interfaces.

‘It actually came as a surprise those bright colors didn’t affect how people fixate on app details. One possible reason is that the mobile interface itself is full of glossy and colorful elements, so everything on the screen can potentially catch your attention – it’s just how they’re designed. It seems that when everything is made to stand out, nothing pops out in the end,’ says lead author and Post-doctoral Researcher Luis Leiva.

The study also confirms that some other design principles hold true for mobile apps. Gaze, for example, drifts to the top-left corner, as an indication of exploration or scanning. Text plays an important role, likely due to its role in relaying information; on first use, users thus tend to focus on text elements of a mobile app as parts of icons, labels and logos.

Image elements drew visual attention more frequently than expected for the area they cover, though the average length of time users spent looking at images was similar to other app elements.

‘Various factors influence where our visual attention goes. For photos, these factors include color, edges, texture and motion  but when it comes to generated visual content, such as graphical user interfaces, design composition is a critical factor to consider,’ says Dr Hamed Tavakoli, who was also part of the Aalto University research team.

This study was conducted with international collaborators that include IIT Goa (India), Yildiz Technical University (Turkey) and Huawei Technologies (China).

Source: Aalto University

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