Attentional cost of information

Scott Hudson (of CMU HCII) gave an excellent talk today, of which the take-away point was to balance the value of information with the attentional cost of displaying that information.

In an information-saturated world, the scarce resource is attention.  It’s easy to forget the significant cost associated with any given piece of information – the time spent absorbing it (or being interrupted by it).  This is similar to the sometimes-forgotten truth about innovation that figuring out how to do things more cheaply is at least as important as doing things that before couldn’t be done.

In interface design, Scott aims to maximize the “C*I-A model”:  (communicative ability) * (importance) – (attentional cost).  In other words, you show the things that convey more information that is more important and have low attentional cost.

On interruptibility, he advocates following the human 7-step process of greeting negotiation:

  1. sighting
  2. orientation – looking back
  3. distant salutation (head toss, which is culturally independent)
  4. approach (step towards and look away)
  5. end approach (stop and look up)
  6. close salutation (handshake, utterance, etc.)
  7. reorientation (90° conversational stance)

If computers were better at following this type of process, they could more effectively negotiate for a user’s attention.

Leave a Comment