Density guides visual search: Sparse groups are first even when slower

KA Tarling, Duncan Brumby
in HFES 2010: Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, Journal article


How do people efficiently locate content in a display? We investigate the effect of text layout on how people decide which area of a display to search first. Using a visual search paradigm, participants were required to locate a known target within a two-column display, in which items were grouped into semantic clusters, and the physical distance between items varied. For 'mixed' trials, the distance between items in each column was varied. Results showed that participants preferred to search the sparser of the two columns first, even though they were faster at locating the target in the denser column. This finding suggests that participants were adopting an inefficient search strategy for locating the target item. Discussion focuses on the implications for models that assume people rationally adapt their search strategy to maximize the gain of task-relevant information over time. Copyright 2010 by Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, Inc. All rights reserved.