Attention, Perception and Information Processing by Users of a Political Party Websites: an Exploratory Study

 

Abstract – The goal of this research is to provide webmasters with a theoretically and experimentally valid scheme toward understanding the influence of design in the selection, processing and memory retention of specific items that give form to websites of Portuguese political parties.  Our project has the following research question: The strategy of design used by Portuguese Political Parties influences the attention, perception and information processing? We stated the following hypothesis: Attention, perception and information processing are mental processes whose intensity varies according to the strategy of design that makes up the configuration of political websites. The research implements an exploratory methodology. Based on the exploratory sessions using the eye-tracking device, we concluded that the subject begins its visual route using visual resources. However, the information processing is mainly based in textual resources, and images play a supportive role in the interpretation of the contents published in political parties websites.

 

Index Terms – Attention, Eye-tracking, Information processing, Political party websites

 

 

Introduction

Within the websites at the service of party political communication, we found a widespread ignorance on the part of the users about design serving an optimal decoding of messages published these types of communicational devices. In Portugal, the lack of literature on the subject is a valid argument justifying the need for scientific studies to overcome public ignorance of both the academic scholars and information architects and hypermedia systems. On this basis, the main goal of this research is to determine the potential of design elements as a vehicle for organizing the process of interaction between the user and the hypermedia product.

The many questions that exist about the influence of design in the process of message decoding are the basis of our interest in knowing the patterns of visual behavior and information processing of users of the major Portuguese political parties websites on the World Wide Web. Our problem is related in its essence with the optimization of transmission and decoding of the message. Initially, and after the collection, consultation and drafting of the state of the art on all topics related to the subject of study, we intend to observe and measure the visual behavior of users of Portuguese political parties websites under assessment.

The exploratory study of visual behavior is being held at the Department of Literature, Arts and Communication of University of Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro (Vila Real, Portugal), with a non-probability sample of 20 subjects (20 subjects x 5 political parties under assessment). The major Portuguese political parties in study are: Partido Socialista (PS), Partido Social Democrata (PSD), Partido Popular (CDS-PP), Bloco de Esquerda (BE) and Partido Comunista Português (PCP).

 

Literature Review

One of the central questions to webmasters is how to assure attention, processing, and retention of information published in those media and observation spaces. In this context, some investigations have provided important guidelines when meticulously studying the information processing, usually defined as a primary cognitive process which involves a series of mental activities, such as attention, and information acquisition, storage, organization, and retrieval from the individual memory of the subject (Russo, 1978; Kroeber-Riel, 1984; Payne, Bettman, and Johnson, 1993).

Both attention and information are higher mental processes that can and should be studied by the Eye-tracker – screening and discrimination instrument of eye movements, fixations and openings in a space of observation.

The Eye-tracking establishes itself as a valid and reliable technology to measure the subject’s perceptual reaction (Russo, 1978; Kroeber-Riel, 1984; Jeck-Schlottmann, 1988), by monitoring the reflection of infrared rays on the ocular surface, technique which allows high reliability in the definition of a point in the observation space, whose clearance is achieved by analyzing the images recorded by a camera sensitive to infrared rays.

The registration of eye movements allows the researcher to monitor accurately where an individual is looking at in time and space. The applications of eye-tracking technology can be as diverse as testing the effectiveness of an advertisement, analyzing the design of a pack, studying product placement in movies and soap-operas, analyzing usability of websites, or checking the layouts of electronic newspapers. Human eyes have two basic behaviors: movements and fixations (Lohse, 1997; Pieters, Rosbergen, and Wedel, 1999). Eye movements are stages ranging from 30 to 120 milliseconds, while fixations are the pauses between movements while the fixations are pauses between movements, ranging from 100 to 400 milliseconds (Lohse, 1997). In 1978, it was estimated that the fixations remain on average 230 milliseconds, and during eye movements, vision is usually suppressed preventing information processing during these periods (Russo, 1978). In all recent eye-tracking studies, the basic metrics of attention analysis and information processing are: the intensity of visual fixations and the order of eye movements in the observation space. Individually, the order reflects different ways of processing information, since there are no stable and regular standards of visual appropriation (Tolley and Bogart, 1994).

 

Methodology

Over the last ten years of research with the philosophy and technology of eye-tracking, we found some effervescence in the field of human-machine interaction (Jacob and Kam, 2003), and in the studies about suability of graphic interfaces (Goldberg and Kotval, 1999; Cowen, Ball, and Delin, 2002; Goldberg at al., 2002; Goldberg and Wichansky, 2003; Pan et al., 2004; Russell, 2005; Bojko, 2006; Nakamichi et al., 2006; Shresta and Lenz, 2006; Shresta andOwens, 2008).

The whole of Portuguese party political websites constitutes itself as an area of high scientific interest, because they are places where information with different shapes and sizes is gathered, and they assume its functional importance at the time of integration with other graphic elements present in the formal and spatial context of the website. Therefore, we must invest effort in understanding the relationship of the user with the political website, and in the definition of different eye patterns according to graphical design schemes of the main Portuguese political party websites. The exploration study of the visual behavior was conducted at the Engineering Department of UTAD, with a non-probabilistic sample of 20 subjects, where each subject had the opportunity to have random contact with the websites of the five most important Portuguese political parties. The observations and measurements were made by an Eye-tracker (Tobii X50 model), and the data treatment was made using the software ClearView, version 2.5.1. of Tobii Technology.

The subjects with the right profile were invited to participate in the exploratory sessions, receiving a set of instructions on the task at hand. At the beginning of each session, was carried out a calibration procedure of eye movements of the subject. The observation system incorporating a 17-inch TFT screen was suitable for the analysis of stimuli through the monitor calibration which is simple and stable. The websites under assessment were viewed in a graphical display of 1024×768 pixels with a color depth of 16 bits. While trying to categorize the areas most seen by users, in each of the prototypes three areas of interest (AOI) were defined. The sequence of presentation of websites under study was randomized in order to control the polarization effect. On the other hand, and with the prospect of aligning the skills and qualities of the participating subjects, different control variables were accounted for such as age, gender, visual acuity, and browsing habits on the World Wide Web.

 

Conclusions

Cognitive processes related to visual attention consist of personal mechanisms of selection and integration of relevant information contained in the objects we interact with.

This research allowed us to observe visual behavior, according to the spatial location occupied by the objects in the visual field, as well as the intrinsic characteristics of the objects present in those spaces of informational editing and broadcasting.

In addition to checking a research hypothesis, the study allowed to understand that the process of visual exploration, in the general sense, occurs from left to right, although a set of diverse ocular behaviors were recorded because of different eye size and position of certain graphics. It is also worth noting that, through observations and data analysis, attention, perception, and information processing varied in intensity according to the strategy of graphic design of the hypermedia under study.

In terms of ingredients, text is, without doubt, the conducting element of exploration and cognitive appropriation of Portuguese political party websites. Regardless of the organizing strategy of the graphics, we found levels of attention regarding the text systematically higher compared to other graphics present on the websites assessed. These other graphics seemed to assume a supporting role in the interpretation of the content published in these environments computer mediated, as it is possible to see in the Figures 1-5, examples of AOIs and hot spots, presented at the end of this paper and generated by the Eye-tracker.

The knowledge about the usability of graphic interfaces allows us to change production routines and enhance the uses and gratifications of users in interaction with contents published in the World Wide Web. This research, while an additional effort in understanding the visual pattern of subjects before various examples of Web design, may contribute to produce graphic layouts with higher added value in terms of communicative efficiency. However, further investigations of this kind are needed to validate and consolidate our research hypothesis.

 Figura 1
Fig. 1

Website BE, AOIs and hotspots

 Figura 2

 Fig. 2

Website CDS-PP, AOIs and hotspots

 Figura 3

Fig. 3

Website PCP, AOIs and hotspots

 Figura 4

 Fig. 4

Website PS, AOIs and hotspots

Figura 5 Fig. 5

Website PSD, AOIs and hotspots

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AUTHORS

José Manuel Cardoso Belo, Associate Professor at UTAD, jbelo@utad.pt.

Galvão dos Santos Meirinhos, Assistant Professor at UTAD, gsm@utad.pt.

gsm

Licenciado em Marketing, licenciado em Publicidade e Relações Públicas, Mestre e Doutor em Ciências da Comunicação pela Universidade Autónoma de Barcelona. Desenvolveu, também, o seu percurso profissional no mundo das empresas, sendo, entre 2004 e 2007, diretor de comunicação da DELAUBE SARL, empresa especializada no desenvolvimento de projetos imobiliários em França.

Desde 2009, é diretor dos ciclos de estudos em ciências da comunicação. Em 2011, passou a ser representante da UTAD no Centro de Estudos e Investigação de Segurança e Defesa de Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro. Já em 2012, iniciou os seus trabalhos de pós-doutoramento na área da eficácia comunicativa na Universidade de Vigo.

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