How Our Brain Scans a Webpage

eyesYesterday, I explained how our brain finds “Waldo.” To briefly recap the post:

  • We have two neural mechanisms for seeing things we might want to pay attention to: a peripheral scanning system that takes in a wide field of vision and a focused (foveal) system that allows us to drill down to details
  • We have neurons that are specialists in different areas: i.e. picking out colors, shapes and disruptions in patterns
  • We use these recruited neuronal swat teams to identify something we’re looking for in our “mind’s eye” (the visual cortex) prior to searching for it in our environment
  • These swat teams focus our attention on our intended targets by synchronizing their firing patterns (like a mental Flash Mob) which allows them to rise above the noise of the other things fighting for our attention.

Today, let’s look at the potential implications of this in our domain, specifically interactions with websites.

But First: A Word about Information Scent

I’ve talked before about Pirolli’s Information Foraging Theory (and another post from this blog). Briefly, it states that we employ the same strategies we use to find food when we’re looking for information online. That’s because, just like food, information tends to come in patches online and we have to make decisions about the promise of the patch, to determine whether we should stay there or find a new patch. There’s another study I’ve yet to share (it will be coming in a post later this week) that indicates our brain might have a built in timer that controls how much time we spend in a patch and when we decide to move on.

The important point for this post is that we have a mental image of the information we seek. We picture our “prey” in our mind before looking for it. And, if that prey can be imagined visually, this will begin to recruit our swat team of neurons to help guide us to the part of the page where we might see it. Just like we have a mental picture of Waldo (from yesterday’s post) that helps us pick him out of a crowd, we have a mental picture of whatever we’re looking for.

Pirolli talks about information scent. These are the clues on a page that the information we seek lies beyond a link or button. Now, consider what we’ve learned about how the brain chooses what we pay attention to. If a visual representation of information is relevant, it acts as a powerful presentation of information scent. The brain processes images much faster than text (which has to be translated by the brain). We would have our neuronal swat team already primed for the picture, singing in unison to draw the spotlight of our attention towards it.

Neurons Storming Your Webpage

sunscreenshotFirst, let me share some of the common behaviors we’ve seen through eye tracking on people visiting websites (in an example from The BuyerSphere Project). I’ll try to interpret what’s happening in the brain:

The heat map shows the eye activity on a mocked up home page. Remember, eye tracking only captures foveal attention, not peripheral, so we’re seeing activity after our brain has already focused the spotlight of attention. For example, notice how the big picture has almost no eye tracking “heat” on it. Most of the time, we don’t have to focus our fovea on a picture to understand what’s in it (the detail rich Waldo pictures would be the exception). Our peripheral vision is more than adequate to interpret most pictures. But consider what happens when the picture matches the target in our “mind’s eye”. The neurons draw our eye to it.

One thing to think about. Words shown in text are pictures too. I’ll be coming back to this theme a couple of times – but a word is nothing more than a picture that represents a concept. For example, the Sun logo in the upper left (1) is nothing more than a picture that our brain associates with the company Sun Microsystems. To interpret this word, the brain first has to interpret the shape of the word. That means there are neurones that recognize straight edges, others than recognize curved edges and others that look for the overall “shape” of the word. Words too can act as information targets that we picture mentally before seeing it in front of us. For example, let’s imagine that we’re a developer. The word “DEVELOPER” (2) has a shape that is recognizable to us because we’ve seen it so often. The straight strokes of the E’s and V’s, sandwiched between the curves of the D’s, O’ and P’s. As we scan the overall page, our “Developer” neurons may suddenly wake up, synchronize their firing and draw the eye here as well. “Developer” already has a prewired connection in our brains. This is true for all the words we’re most familiar with, including brands like Sun. This is why we see a lot of focused eye activity on these areas of the picture.

Intent Clustering

In the last part of today’s post, I want to talk about a concept I spent some time on in the BuyerSphere Project: Intent Clustering. I’ve always know this makes sense from an Information Scent perspective, but now I know why from a neural perspective as well.

Intent clustering is creating groups of relevant information cues in the same area of the page. For example, for a product category on an e-commerce page, an intent cluster would include a picture of the product, a headline with the product category name, short bullet points with salient features and brands and perhaps relevant logos. An Intent cluster immediately says to the visitor that this is the right path to take to find out more about a certain topic or subject. The page shown has two intent clusters that were aligned with the task we gave, one in the upper right sidebar (3) and one in the lower left hand corner (4). Again, we see heat around both these areas.

Why are intent clusters “eye candy” for visitors? It’s because we’ve stacked the odds for these clusters to be noticed peripherally in our favor. We’ve included pictures, brands, familiar words and hints of rich information scent in well chosen bullet points. This combination is almost guaranteed to set our neural swat teams singing in harmony. Once scanned in peripheral vision, the conductor (the FEF I talked about in yesterday’s post) of our brain swings our attention spotlight towards the cluster for more engaged consumption, generating the heat we see in the above heatmap.

Tomorrow, I’ll be looking at how these mechanisms can impact our engagement with online display ads.

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