Software to cut on-screen clutter

Information could soon be easier to pick out on a user interface or a website thanks to technology boffins in the US.

Researchers say the danger of clutter - particularly on a computer screen - is that it causes confusion that affects how well people perform tasks.

To this end, visual clutter is a challenge for fighter pilots picking out a target, for people seeking data on a user interface, and for website and map designers.

But a team of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has identified a way to measure visual clutter.

Their research, which is published in the Journal of Vision, could lead to more user-friendly displays, as well as tips for designers trying to make their displays more attention-grabbing.

“We lack a clear understanding of what clutter is, what features, attributes and factors are relevant, why it presents a problem and how to identify it," said Ruth Rosenholtz, the author of the research.

The fact that one person's clutter is the next person's organised workspace makes it hard to come up with a universal measure of clutter, the researchers said.

Rosenholtz, who is also principal research scientist at the institute’s department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, modelled what makes items in a display harder or easier to pick out.

Using this model, which incorporated data on colour, contrast and orientation, Rosenholtz developed a software tool to measure visual clutter.

To be useful, such a tool has to capture the effect of clutter on performance.

In her paper, Rosenholtz and her team tested the influence of clutter on searching for a symbol in a map, like an arrow indicating "you are here."

The MIT said they found “good correlation” between the time it takes to find a symbol in a map and the amount of clutter according to their measure.

Rosenholtz next plans to offer this visual clutter tool to designers as part of a user study, with the hope of learning what insights designers get from knowledge of how a user will likely perceive their designs, and how best to present this information to the designers.

The researcher provides free software written in MATLAB to anyone interested in generating colour and contrast "clutter maps" to gauge the clutter level of a display.

The tool is available online .


30th August 2007

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