“We Choose the Moon” From a Human Attention Perspective

In Education, Interaction Design by Ian CarnaghanLeave a Comment

Web based games and interactive applications have become a common means of teaching a wide range of concepts throughout K-12 schools in the United States.  With the declining costs of hardware and software coupled with the increase of available bandwidth and transfer speeds, the development of educational applications has advanced significantly in the last five years.  This is especially notable with regards to web browser applications both on the traditional PC desktop and now via mobile devices including modern cell phones and tablets.  The target audience of these applications includes those who grew up with e-mail at a young age and take for granted modern video game systems, 3D graphics and life-like realistic graphics and audio effects.  The younger generation have adapted to technology in a very short time.  Their way of communicating to friends now includes the use of text messaging, social networking and video conferences as the norm.  It therefore takes considerable effort to create a learning environment stimulating enough to maintain attention and effectively of this target audience and educational game and application developers have had to implement various methods to ensure their platform is an effective learning tool.

We Choose the Moon is a web application that attempts to create an “interactive experience recreating the historic Apollo 11 mission to the Moon.”  It is a project that was funded by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, and while it has been developed as a fun interactive learning experience for children, it is every bit as educational and interesting for adult users.  This article examines the effectiveness of We Choose the Moon as an educational application in terms of its ability to properly maintain attention and provide a successful learning experience for its users.  It addresses two key strengths and weaknesses of the application with regards to attention and cognition, while examining the target audience and identifying potential improvements that could be implemented.

We Choose the Moon was a project designed to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon. It was originally launched as a live four day ‘real-time’ event containing ‘almost 110 hours of Apollo 11 audio transmission, full screen 3D animations, and live twitter feeds in the voice of the astronauts.’ We Choose The Moon (2010). It has since remained a learning application, used by schools across the country to teach children about the Apollo mission.

iLearnTechnology describes it as a site that ‘drops students right into history where they get to witness, and take part in the Apollo 11 launch and mission.” It is designed to be a truly immersive experience; therefore it is important to examine its effectiveness in addressing human cognition specifically with regard to attention and keeping the focus of its users for a beneficial learning experience.

Effectiveness of Addressing Attention

There are two main strengths this application possesses in order to effectively manage the address the attention of its users. The first includes a well-rounded use of multimedia addressing the three sensory modalities of touch, sound and vision, manipulating bottom-up and fostering top-down attention. The second strength lies in the structure of the application, which is split into consumable chunk sized information phases and each phase allows a shift of the user’s attention to the next stage of the Apollo mission. These strengths are addressed in more detail below.

We Choose the Moon has been developed to address three main modalities of human sensation; visual, sound and touch (or response). Much of the visual stimuli includes a variety of eye catching photographs, video and animations. Sound has been added to accompany the video as well as additional audio recordings, which are intended to foster an environment of mission control and the space flight experience. Touch or response has been addressed through the use of roll-over and pop-up effects baked into the applications interface. The combination of the various types of media and response effects provides a major benefit in honing in on bottom-up and top-down attention. Bottom-up attention, sometimes referred to as involuntary can be described as a process that is not driven by the user but by whatever thing in their environment that is ‘most salient, or obviously compelling.’ Gallagher (2010).

We Choose the Moon begins by giving the user a choice of various information ‘chunks’ or slices of media provided in an attractive, easy to use interface. The application is broken down into phases or stages, each providing a wealth of information regarding the various parts of the Apollo mission. Visual and auditory indicators and cues are placed at various parts of the screen. Mildly flashing circular buttons are designed to draw the user’s attention to them and once there, a nicely animated popup provides a snippet of photographic and video information available. Other parts of the screen provides updated information, refreshing every few seconds, subtle enough to remain less annoying than more obvious animations often used on amateur websites, but effective enough to draw focus to. Widgets for hiding and expanding information panels are clearly marked and provide a way for the user to manage and customize their experience.

Bottom-up attention is involuntary and limited in the amount of time a user will remain focused on the stimuli, approximately 20 seconds if nothing of interest keeps their attention. Kohl (2011). We Choose the Moon has taken this into consideration and built in various mechanisms to promote or foster top-down attention. While bottom-up attention addresses the obvious things to hone in on, top-down addresses what the user wants to concentrate on. Gallagher (2010). We Choose the Moon does an excellent job of luring interest by providing various attention grabbing snippets of information. Some of the ways the interface draws in bottom-up attention expand on this by providing tempting or interesting avenues for the user to explore further. The flashing popups which provide photos and video samples also provide mechanisms to explore the topic being presented further.

The way the application has been designed into phases or stages, it is careful not to provide too much information at once, while leaving the control of how quickly the user wishes to progress entirely up to them. Research shows that even when a person is engaged and actively paying attention, their span is limited to 18 minutes. Kohl (2011). The staged approach of this application addresses this in a beneficial way by carefully shifting and refocusing on the next phase. Each phase or stage could not be completed within 18 minutes, however each provide enough information to learn just enough about that particular part of the mission and revisit at a later date. The format helps maximize the overall exposure to information and learning directly to the user. Gallagher talks about some of the drawbacks regarding top-down focusing and the effect of “change blindness”. This application provides a well-balanced combination of top-down opportunities, however limited enough so as not to distract the user from the more broader objective of learning about the entire Apollo mission, not just certain details or events.

Where the Application Falls Short in Managing User Attention

‘The likelihood that information in working memory will be encoded and will be available for retrieval from stored memory depends on how carefully we attend to the information in working memory.’ Herrmann et al (2006). In order to understand how well users may focus on various aspects of a web application, we need to examine the area of consciousness and the relationship of attention and monitoring. Earlier some of the strengths of We Choose the Moon were highlighted in terms of bottom-up and top-down attention, or involuntary and voluntary attention. Human consciousness is continually engaged in a ‘monitoring’ process whereby the brain filters information and selectively focuses on particular stimuli. Bottom-up or involuntary attention occurs when something grabs the user’s attention unexpectedly and top-down occurs when the user intentionally focuses on something. Those things that fail to reach the user’s focus tend to not be paid attention to because they are expected or ‘salient’. Kohl (2011). A person who has experienced a multi-media website before will be somewhat familiar with buttons, widgets, pop-ups, video, audio and other similar attributes. They will expend little time in figuring out the basic navigation of the site. This automatic processing can also be problematic in a site that has been developed in familiar phases.

We Choose the Moon has 9 stages. Each stage consists of similar buttons, widgets and links. For example, nearly every stage has two to three blue pop-up buttons for photo galleries and video. These are marked with consistent logos to provide the appropriate cue to the user. The main interface also includes a ‘mission tracker’, which is located consistently at the bottom of the screen throughout the application stages. This mission tracker allows the user to skip to other stages of the application. From a usability perspective this provides an effective interface for users who are re-visiting the site to quickly navigate back to the area they left off or the phase they are most interested in learning more about. After complete the first couple of stages in the application, the user will quickly become familiar with which buttons provides photograph galleries, videos and other related information. They may decide they are not interested in the JFK gallery for example, which is available in most stages, since they know what to expect and might focus only on the multimedia video section for example in the remaining stages. Their familiarity with the interface might tempt them to simply skip ahead to the later stages without fully engaging in the content.
It can be argued that the site was designed in the al-la-carte fashion of providing a much information and leaving the choice to new and returning students or users to continue engaging with. This however could potentially lead to a surface learning problem, especially in a school environment where the student may be tempted to only pay attention to the more interesting facets of the application. This would not be the case in a less predictable application, which would lead to more time spent concentrating on the workings of the site with less repetition and more unfamiliar situations. For a learning application this would force the user to become more engaged spending time paying deliberate attention and focus and less on automatic processing.

The Intended Audience

As mentioned earlier, We Choose the Moon was originally developed as an immersive real-time experience of the Apollo mission to celebrate its 40th anniversary. It has since become a very successful educational application used in many schools. While the web site is accessible by anyone, it can be argued it’s a large percentage of its target audience consists of educators and students, where it has been used as a learning platform. iLearn Technology published several articles about the application and highlighted that its interactive qualities let students ‘travel back in time’ where a ‘text account’ would not do justice to the experience. Earlier we discussed some of the ramifications of growing up in a technological advanced world for younger people. Communications have changed, expectations have changed and more importantly competing for attention among this age group can often be challenging with all of the other technological distractions.

We Choose the Moon has been designed to give a positive experience to this age group of students who have come to take for granted interactive learning and multimedia. The application provides a modern, almost futuristic interface with many hours of video, audio and imagery promoting a more positive learning experience than that of the typical text book or written words on a blackboard. Gallagher discusses the implications of emotion and the relationship of positive and negative feelings coupled with attention. ‘Paying attention to positive emotions literally expands your world, while focusing on negative feelings shrinks it.’ Gallagher (2010). Experiments have been conducted that conclude positive emotions enhances attention and the person or user’s ability to take in the larger picture, while negative emotions tends to limit them to fixation of smaller details. In addition to this, quite often users will try to avoid situations or elements of an application that invoke a negative response. IPerceptual defense is a phrase used to describe the process of ‘blocking out unpalatable things’. Kohl (2011). In situations where younger students find interactive media more stimulating, the positive effects of providing a rich, immersive experience with a balanced approach to the various media types ultimately helps improve the user’s overall experience.

Another important feature of this application is the way the information is presented when the user has drilled-down or selected a resource to focus on. When a video or gallery object is selected for example, the rest of the interface temporarily fades the background noise out so the user can focus their voluntary attention here reducing the chance distractions from other parts of the site.

Improvements

Overall this web application has been very successful and has received many positive reviews from users. There are however some improvements that could be made to enhance the way it addresses attention and focus, specifically in terms of alerts and responses. Earlier, some of the responsiveness of the application was discussed in terms of the various visual effects presented throughout the interface including roll-overs, pop-ups and other such widgets. While the application provides a rich media environment including visual and audio, it seems that better use could be made for alerts and cues in the system through the use of sound. Sound can often be used in applications to help refocus attention. While there is background sound and audio that play while accessing the application, additional sound prompts could be used to grab or redirect attention where needed.

From a technical perspective, the web site itself could have been developed using a more universal programming framework. In its current form using Adobe Flash, it is only accessible on certain mobile devices. Had the site been constructed using jQuery or other HTML 5 frameworks, it would have opened the possibility of it being accessible on iOS devices. Keeping this in mind, further work could have been done to improve touch and feel responsiveness. The application was clearly developed for a web browser and compatibility with mobile devices seems to have been more of an afterthought. Additional touch, swipe and pinch functionality could have been added for better responsiveness on these devices. Many younger people use mobile phones and tablets where an application of this nature could take full advantage of those platforms and find ways to enhance user attention and focus.

Conclusion

We Choose the Moon is an extremely interesting interactive web application that requires no software installation and provides a rich immersive learning experience. It is clear a lot of time and thought went into this application in terms of overall usability as well as ensuring it provided a highly interactive environment that would keep the attention and interest of its users. Fougere (2010) stated that the concept behind the web application of a highly interactive and immersive experience is transferable to other interactive online course design in terms of effective teaching applications.

There are improvements that could be made to the application and this article has addressed the main strengths as well as drawbacks in terms of user attention by addressing the various research concepts.

References:

  1. Domani Studios (2010). We Choose the Moon. Retrieved from: http://domanistudios.com/new/highlights.html
  2. Gallagher, W. (2009). RAPT. Attention and the Focused Life. New York: NY. Penguin Group.
  3. Herrmann, D., J., Yoder, C., Y., Gruneberg, M., & Payne, D., G. (2006). Applied Cognitive Psychology A Textbook. New York: NY. Psychology Press.
  4. IDIA 640 Human Computers and Cognition (2011). Class Notes from Dr. Kohl Ph.D.
  5. iLearn Technology. (2011). We Choose the Moon. Retrieved from http://ilearntechnology.com/?p=3671
  6. Fougere, N. (2010). How to Make Interactive Learning Content Better. Retrieved from: http://www.litmos.com/industry-news/how-to-make-interactive-learning-content-better/

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