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How to Focus Your Audience’s Attention in Data Visualization Through Preattentive Attributes

May 17, 2021

Preattentive attributes to focus your audience’s attention

Visualizing data requires to turn data into marks on a canvas. What kind of marks make the most sense? And how can we focus attention when designing data representations? One answer lies in the preattentive attributes: things that our brains process in milliseconds, before we pay even attention to everything else. Size and hue are two very powerful preattentive attributes. But, what do we understand by preattentive attributes and what do they do?

What are preattentive attributes and how do they focus attention?

Preattentive attributes signal us where to look. 

Preattentive attributes such as size, color and position on page can be used strategically in two ways: 

  1. Preattentive attributes can be leveraged to help direct your audience’s attention to where you want them to focus it. 
  2. They can be used to create a visual hierarchy of elements to lead your audience through the information you want to communicate in the way you want them to process it. 

When we examine data charts, we are relying on pattern seeking abilities that helped our ancestors even to survive their natural environment.

How do preattentive attributes work?

The conscious part of our brain known as System 1 is constantly processing visual stimuli based on various rules or heuristics. Before any focused attention is required, System 1 gains an initial impression based on various preattentive attributes, such as color, shape, and intensity. 

Data visualization experts have highlighted the significance of these preattentive attributes to information design. If we can understand how perception works, our knowledge can be translated into rules for displaying information.

Examples of preattentive attributes used to focus your audience’s attention

Preattentive attributes provide us with ways to encode our data in charts. What are the 12 commonly used preattentive attributes in data visualization: 

  • orientation, 
  • length, 
  • width, 
  • size, 
  • shape, 
  • curvature, 
  • added marks, 
  • closure, 
  • color value, 
  • color hue, 
  • position, and, finally, 
  • spatial grouping.

How to put preattentive attributes (and other tools) into practice?

The choice for the best or most appropriate visual encoding depends on the data.

The Marketing Analytics Academy’s mission is to get you started on data analytics, its methods, and key concepts in various fields of marketing. The comprehensive course “Data Visualization: Storytelling With Data” provides a detailed overview to preattentive attributes and Gestalt principles and explains along with examples and exercises how to use these features for compelling data visualizations. Start your data viz journey today and check out the online course!

Start your data analytics journey today!

The mission of The Marketing Analytics Academy is to get you started on data analytics, its methods, and key concepts in various fields of marketing. Take advantage of outstanding learning experiences thanks to the facilitators’ roles as a university professor and senior management trainer.

Check out the online courses