Model predict how well people can process information on interactive computer displays

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Rice University psychologist says findings suggest ways
to improve
design of Web sites and other computer-driven screens

A model of human
thinking and performance that has been studied by a psychologist at Rice
University in Houston can predict how well people locate and select various
options on a computer screen. The model has implications for designing
air-traffic-control monitors, in-car navigation systems, Web pages and other
computer displays in ways that people can process information more

“Our theory and model
allow scientists to make predictions about human performance on tasks that
involve computer displays,” said Michael Byrne, assistant professor of
psychology at Rice. “We can tell, for example, where to position information on
a computer screen so that the user is more likely to see it quickly.”

Byrne conducted the
research at Carnegie Mellon University before joining the faculty at Rice, where
he analyzed the results that are published in the July issue of the
International Journal of Human Computer Studies.

“Understanding the
interaction of a user with a designed device like a computer requires a clear
understanding of three components,” Byrne said. “The user’s cognitive,
perceptual and motor capabilities, the task and the device used to accomplish
the task can impact the result.”

Byrne showed each of the
11 participants in his study more than 100 questions that involved identifying a
particular number or letter in lists of random numbers and letters on a computer
screen. He timed how long it took the participants to spot the selected symbols.
A camera mounted on a headband worn by the participants tracked their eye

Using a theory of
cognition known as ACT-R/PM and an eye-tracking model, Byrne predicted how long
it would take the participants to click on the targeted items. He also predicted
the other items they would look at en route to the targeted items, based on the
characters or numbers they were likely to fixate on and the order in which they
were likely to read information on the display.

Byrne found that his
predictions averaged within 15 percent of participants’ actual response times —
“close enough to be useful to designers,” he said.

Engineers who design
air-traffic-control monitors, for example, could use the theory and model to
position critical information on a screen where the user is most likely to see
it first.

“Keeping up with the
volume of information on a computer display is often a problem,” Byrne said. “A
designer can optimize the rate at which people can process information on the
screen by using the theory and model we studied. A strategic placement of menu
items can make it possible for people to read the most important information
fast enough to keep up with their work so they don’t end up in a situation where
they’re likely to make errors.”

Byrne’s research was
supported by the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, the
National Institute of Mental Health and NASA.


Rice University is consistently ranked one of America’s
best teaching and research universities. It is distinguished by its: size-2,700
undergraduates and 1,500 graduate students; selectivity-10 applicants for each
place in the freshman class; resources-an undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio
of 5-to-1, and the fourth largest endowment per student among private American
universities; residential college system, which builds communities that are both
close-knit and diverse; and collaborative culture, which crosses disciplines,
integrates teaching and research, and intermingles undergraduate and graduate
work. Rice’s wooded campus is located in the nation’s fourth largest city and on
America’s South Coast.

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