Web Design and Vision Systems


The use of neuroscience in web design is something we’ll be covering on a regular basis, but here’s an older article that you may have missed: Where and What Visual Systems = Better Web Design.

Author Heather Quinn writes,

In her book “Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing” (Margaret Livingstone, David H. Hubel), Livingstone says that each vision system is made of distinct, different types of neurons. Both systems of neurons start their runs run at the backs of our eyes (our retinas), then pass through various areas of our brains. Each system processes visual signals in distinct, different ways, seeing different classes of things, and processing what they see at different speeds.

The Where system is sensitive to contrast, movement, direction and edges. This system is thought to be the more primitive of the two. It tells us where things are, and how fast things are moving. The Where system is survival-oriented, to protect us from predators. It picks up and processes visual signals very quickly, then just as quickly moves on to new visual inputs. By doing this, it maximizes our awareness of danger in our surroundings, and enables us to protect ourselves better.

The What vision system is sensitive to color, details (including faces), and texture. This system is thought to have developed later in human evolution. The What system helps us recognize family, friends, and familiar surroundings. In other words, it’s the non-danger vision system. It takes its time to process what it sees slowly and thoroughly.

According to the article, the design of a web page should appeal to both ways of vision processing. Dramatic contrast, sharp edges, movement, etc., will get the viewer’s attention by appealing to the Where system. Muted colors, gradual curves, and low contrast will appeal to the more cognitive What system. By using Where features to grab attention and then What features to hold the viewer’s interest, a page will achieve maximum effectiveness.

One of the interesting comments is about type and contrast. While a common assumption is that maximum contrast, e.g., black text on a white background, is the most readable, the article points out that the high contrast may be too much Where and not enough What. By appealing to the Where vision processing center, the contrasty type will grab attention quickly but also cause fatigue and loss of interest; a somewhat lower contrast choice might be preferable if the viewer is expected to read quite a bit of text.

You may not buy this approach as a complete prescription for designing a web site, but it’s an interesting way to look at pages and, perhaps, troubleshoot issues like too many visitors who exit the site from a specific page instead of continuing with the intended flow of the site.

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