Consciousness, Attention, and Design – How our brains process information, and what are the implications for UX & UI
Chanin Goldsmith
December 2022

The study of visual attention in the brain is directly relevant to human-computer interaction because it provides an applicable framework for how designs can be improved to match human cognition better. 

Consciousness – The reality filter

Our senses are constantly receiving vast amounts of information from our surroundings. So much, in fact, that  our brain is incapable of processing all of it, nor does it have to –  A lot of this information has no bearing on our wellbeing, and can therefore be ignored. 

Because our huge brains account for +20% of our body’s energy consumption, we’ve evolved to be very effective at this type of filtering – Ultimately it’s an energy saving ploy. 

Consciousness can be understood as the filter we use to ensure only the most important information gets through. Our body and brain are continuously selecting which stimuli must be allocated attention resources, and which can be ignored. We constantly interpret and analyze this data, and merge it together with our internal experience and affect, to formulate appropriate responses (Marcel, 1983).

Our consciousness lets important data in, and filters out the rest, so that at any moment, we’re only aware of a manageable volume of signals. By turning our attention to a task we influence the allocation of our available cognitive resources . Focusing on one task, immediately means that all the rest become distractions to be ignored.

Paying attention

Attention can be understood as our ability to concentrate our consciousness and focus on specific stimuli, while filtering out the rest. Visual attention is so central to human experience that it’s supported by dedicated neural pathways that connect the brain’s visual centers with those governing movements of the eye and head. 

Our capacity to pay attention is hereditary and defined by our genes, but it  can be enhanced through training and meditation. 

Additional points worth considering regarding attention’s qualities are:

  • We pay more attention to new, changing, and dynamic environmental stimuli.
  • When we focus on one task, we block our awareness of everything else.

One of the aspects of how we allocate our attention can be gauged by how we leverage our Iconic and Working memories, but to understand those we must first consider “The Three Stores Memory Model”…

The Three Stores memory model

Atkinson and Shiffrin’s model of memory (1968), also known as the Multi-Store Model, identifies three types of memory: 

  • Sensory memory – AKA Iconic memory.
  • Short-term memory – AKA Working memory
  • Long-term memory

According to this model, information flows linearly from the Sensory store (Iconic memory) to Short-term memory (Working memory), and from there on to long-term memory. 

This sequence has been described as an information processing model with three components: an input, process and output. The encoding, capacity and duration of information processing differs among each of these stores (Iconic, Working, and Long-term).

Iconic memory

Iconic memory is a brief, momentary snapshot of what we are seeing. It is like a mental photograph. It allows us to recall visual stimuli with great accuracy, but we retain it for only a few milliseconds. This is why we can often feel like we can recall a phone number we’ve just seen, but by the time we want to write it down, we’ve forgotten some of the digits 

Understanding Iconic memory is useful for designers because it helps explain how people will process and remember the information presented to them.

Working memory

Working memory can be thought of as “a more active form of attention”. It’s where we hold information in our mind and manipulate it to solve problems, make decisions, and perform tasks. Working memory accesses just-received inputs and interprets them through analysis in relation to any relevant data that can be pulled from the brain’s long-term memories (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974). 

Working memory is the part of our brain processing whatever we’re currently thinking about. Right now your Working memory is engaged in reading and understanding this sentence. By the time you finished reading the previous sentence, your working memory was no longer storing the precise wording of sentence before it, and which you’ve now forgotten… 

A classic example of how we utilize our working memory is when we try to remember a phone number we’ve just seen by repeating it over and over. 

While Working memory is highly effective at processing data, and is even capable of beating the world’s most complex computers at some tasks, it’s very limited in its capacity and can only retain about 20 seconds of information at a time. Understanding this neurological limitation helps designers create more usable interfaces.

Long-term memory

Long term memory is what we normally think about when we talk about “Memory”. It’s the ongoing recording of all the data we chose to pay attention to. When we try to recall an anecdote that occurred to us yesterday we’re engaging our long-term memory.

This storage includes not only the factual data of our experiences, but also records of our emotions, thoughts, ideas, sensory perceptions, etc. for each experience. These disparate data points, and more crucially, the contextual connections between them, are what creates our life’s journey and defines us as individuals.

From the perspective of UX-UI design it’s helpful to know the keys to solidifying impressions and creating long lasting memories are repetition, and connectivity, by which we mean creating as many sensory, cognitive and emotional connections as possible between any new information we want our audience to remember, and whatever existing information they’re likely to have already. An easy example to the application of this principle is following conventions insofar as website design is concerned – it’s a good idea to have your website’s menu at the top of the page, because that’s your audience remembers from previous experience with other websites, that the top of the page is where the menu is.

Conclusion – Your UX/UI designers should explain the cognitive aspects of their work

Understanding the mechanics of consciousness, thought, and memory is key to creating effective, usable, and pleasant user experiences and user interfaces. Familiarity with the biological, neurological, and psychological elements of perception, cognition and memory is vital for the delivery of high quality UX/UI design because they are the bedrock of human experience – These principles apply to ALL OF US – it’s literally how we’re built. Failure to account for these aspects of our humanity creates interfaces that are clunky, inconvenient, and error-inducing. Ultimately these poor designs cost organizations untold fortunes in reduced productivity, boosted failure rates, and staff turnover due to frustration with tools and operations.

If you’re considering hiring a designer or agency be sure to ask how their team is leveraging these hardwired workings of the brain for your project’s benefit.

References

Atkinson, R. C., & Shiffrin, R. M. 1968. Human memory: A proposed system and its control process. In K. W. Spence & J. T. Spence (Eds.), The psychology of learning and motivation: Advances in research and theory (Vol. 2) Academic Press: New York.

Baddeley, A. D. & Hitch, G. (1974). Working memory. In G. H. Bower (Ed.). The psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 8) Academic Press: New York.

Fechner, G.T. 1860. Elemente der Psychophysik. Breitkopfund Härtel, Leipzig, Germany.Marcel, A. J. 1983. Conscious and unconscious perception: An approach to the relation between phenomenal experience and perceptual processes. Cognitive Psychology, 15, 238-300.

Neisser, U. 1967. Cognitive Psychology. Appleton-Century-Crofts: New York.

Latest News