Designing the cognitive future, part iii: attention

Authors: Juan Hourcade
Posted: Mon, January 13, 2014 - 1:37:38

In two previous postings, I began discussing how interactive technologies are affecting cognitive processes, and how they may do so in the future. I already discussed perception and memory. In this post, I discuss attention.

Attention is a topic that has received a fair amount of notice recently, especially when it comes to interactive technologies and their role in distractions and multitasking. Perhaps the best-known example is the use of phones or other interactive technologies while driving. A 2013 study by Wynn, Richardson, and Stevens in the UK found that using an in-vehicle information system resulted in worse driving performance than driving with an alcohol level at the UK legal limit. It is actually distressing to find that many new car models include touchscreen-based controls that require visual attention.

Another challenge with attention that has been investigated, in this case in the HCI community, is how interruptions can take our focus away from tasks we want to complete. For example, being interrupted by text messages or by an email can make it so it takes a significant amount of time to get back into a flow (thinking of Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow). Sometimes it seems like there’s constant competition among the apps we have installed in our system to get our attention and spend more time using them. 

This kind of competition may also be affecting what we pay attention to. In this sense, Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together comes to mind, with her concerns about how we are shifting our attention from each other to interactive technologies. Family conversations in many cases are making room for the personally satisfying experience provided by interactive devices. 

In fact, the personalization of these devices and instant availability of high-interest content makes it more difficult than ever to focus on other tasks or on people. They can provide instant gratification without having to deal with boring, uncomfortable, or difficult situations. It is hard for parents, significant others, or random strangers to compete with that. One example I have noticed is that it is rare nowadays to strike a conversation with a stranger sitting next to you while using public transportation, or in a waiting room. It is much more common for people to engage with mobile devices, sending a not-so-subtle message to not be disturbed.

Something similar occurs when an unusual event occurs in public. While people used to immerse themselves in the event and later recall it, nowadays it seems like it is more common for people to focus on recording the event in their mobile devices to quickly share with others. 

So what might the future bring? I expect one significant change in many interactive devices will be the increased use of eye-tracking technology. As it goes down in price and becomes widely available, eye-tracking will enable software to better guess what people are paying attention to. This could be used to design user interfaces so they better correspond to a specific user’s interests. 

But going back to the thrust of these blog posts, how do we want to design the future of attention? My guess is that for most people, what we pay attention to during a typical day doesn’t correspond to the things we would like to pay attention to if we were given a chance to reflect on what is important to us. From a societal perspective, I would also guess that the things we pay attention to do not correspond to those that would bring about collective improvements. For this reason, I think there is an opportunity for interactive technologies to actually redirect our attention to the things that matter to us. I am not advocating for a complete lack of interruptions and inattention (I think there are positive aspects to these), but instead for a healthy balance of focus on things that matter and opportune breaks.

Other ways in which attention may change in the future is in managing multitasking. Interactive technologies, instead of overwhelming us, could actually help us prioritize what to pay attention to while recording stimuli that is not time-sensitive and saving it for later. There has already been some research in this regard in terms of when to interrupt people, but this could be expanded to take into account the different kinds of distractions people are subjected to from multiple devices.

Another possible way of dealing with multitasking and interruptions is to crowdsource attention. This could work for tasks that do not involve personal information or that do not require personal knowledge. Maybe someone else could remotely drive your car if you feel like you must be texting.

My personal preferences would be for the cognitive future to involve technologies that help us focus on the things that matter to us, that do not overwhelm us with competing stimuli, and that let us relax and take a break when we need to.

How would you design the future of attention?

Posted in: on Mon, January 13, 2014 - 1:37:38

Juan Hourcade

Juan Pablo Hourcade is an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Iowa, focusing on human-computer interaction.
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