Attention-grabbing apps are all about showing off faces rather than flashy designs

ESPOO, Finland — With so many apps competing for the public’s attention, what features actually bring in a crowd? While all digital screens have plenty in common, researchers in Finland say smartphone and tablet content is a little different. The team from Aalto University adds our perceptions of digital visuals is not the same when moving over to smaller, mobile screens.

In previous studies on what catches a user’s attention, scientists have focused on web interfaces and desktop-based applications. This study — including researchers from India, Turkey, and China — looks at the small screen specifically. Their findings reveal apps actually have to change the entire plain by which people consume information.

“Apps appear differently on a phone than on a desktop computer or browser: they’re on a smaller screen which simply fits fewer elements and, instead of a horizontal view, mobile devices typically use a vertical layout,” explains Professor Antti Oulasvirta in a university release. “Until now it was unclear how these factors would affect how apps actually attract our eyes.”

People love to see faces and text in their apps

The research team utilized an abundance of mobile interfaces and eye-tracking techniques, taking notes on how users view mobile screenshots from both an Android and iPhone device. While you may think the flashier the better when it comes to attention-grabbing apps, study authors say this isn’t so.

“It actually came as a surprise that bright colors didn’t affect how people fixate on app details. One possible reason is that the mobile interface itself is full of glossy and colorful elements, so everything on the screen can potentially catch your attention – it’s just how they’re designed. It seems that when everything is made to stand out, nothing pops out in the end,” says lead author Luis Leiva.

In some cases, researchers noted some attention-grabbing factors that transfer from desktop to mobile, such as gaze. This refers to the eye drifting to the top-left corner of the application as the reader scans the page. Users tended to have their focus drawn to the text that relays key information; logos being one of the focuses.

Faces and images also drew in more visual attention than expected, especially when accompanied by texts — bringing the user’s attention much closer to the texts. Time spent looking at faces and images was quite similar to other details in an app.

“Various factors influence where our visual attention goes. For photos, these factors include color, edges, texture and motion,” says researcher Dr. Hamed Tavakoli. “But when it comes to generated visual content, such as graphical user interfaces, design composition is a critical factor to consider.”

The researchers presented their findings at MobileHCI’20, the international conference on human-computer interaction with mobile devices and services.