This is why you are so addicted to the apps on your phone

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So much time these days is spent staring at screens. Between television, desktop computers, and smartphones, it isn’t a stretch to say that millions go through a daily cycle of moving from one screen to the next.

How and why exactly do these screens capture our visual attention so absolutely? When it comes to TV and desktop computer screens, scientists have long agreed that especially bright and colorful images attract attention faster and for longer periods than more dull images. Also, we tend to focus on the center of such screens first, before slowly spreading our attention out horizontally.

Now, however, the first study ever to focus specifically on smartphone/tablet app visual attraction and saliency has discovered that those aforementioned, seemingly universal visual attraction rules don’t apply to smartphones and tablets.

According to researchers at Aalto University in Finland, our eyes aren’t attracted to smartphone app visuals in the same way they’re drawn toward desktop or laptop computer screens. Bold or colorful elements just don’t capture our attention on smartphones as they do on other screens.

Why is this the case? The study’s authors say that since pretty much everything on a typical smartphone app’s design is shiny, glossy, and colorful, no single element or portion of the screen stands out.

“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. Until now it was unclear how these factors would affect how apps actually attract our eyes,” explains Aalto University Professor Antti Oulasvirta in a release.

“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’s made to stand out, nothing pops out in the end,” adds lead study author and post-doctoral researcher Luis Leiva.

So, where does our attention immediately jump upon opening a smartphone app? Researchers conducted a series of experiments with a group of volunteers to find out. Each person was fitted with an eye-tracking device as they looked at screenshots of both Android and Apple iOS apps displayed on mobile devices.

Those experiments revealed that our eyes immediately turn toward the top left portion of the screen. This is probably because we’ve all been conditioned to look to that area as a “starting point” for scanning and exploring the rest of the app’s contents. People also tend to turn their attention to any text on the screen early on as well. This is especially true for first time users; we look to the text within labels, logos, and icons to get a better sense of what the app is all about.

Users also spent more time than researchers were expecting gazing upon in-app images. More specifically, images of people’s faces quickly gathered “concentrated attention.” That being said, if an image of a person’s face was placed beside some text, users’ eyes would instinctively stare at the text.

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

The phrase “information overload” is often thrown around regarding modern society’s obsession with smartphones. Each time we glance at our phones we’re bombarded with unlimited information. These findings on visual attraction back up this line of thinking; even on a purely visual level our eyes are becoming numb to bright or big elements due to the sheer volume of shiny and colorful images constantly being displayed.

The full study can be found here. This research was also presented in full detail at the MobileHCI’20, the flagship conference on Human-Computer Interaction with mobile devices and services.