A forested area is an environment rich with information – there are different paths, varieties of plants, and an array of sound and colour. Yet such a walk is refreshing and relaxing, because you do not have to pay full attention to all these pieces of information surrounding you. You can focus on some and enjoy them while others become part of the background.
The idea of integrating digital information into the environment is to make it less intrusive and to reduce the cognitive load on users.
This is a scenario that the father of Ubiquitous Computing, Mark Weiser from Xerox PARC used to inform the concept of an ambient environment. An ambient environment involves digital information being integrated into the physical make up of a place – such as a transport environment. In a train station, this could be information that seamlessly blends into the walls and floor through displays and panels. It is unobtrusive to the eye, and over time it becomes just another part of the station. But when you want to focus on it, the information is readily available – much like the surrounds of the forest. Mark Weiser in 1991 already wrote “the most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”
Transport environments are also split attention environments. There are trains or buses coming and going, customers may be talking with friends or on the phone, or listening to music, or checking their wallet for a ticket – a myriad of possible distractions.
The idea of integrating digital information into the environment is to make it less intrusive and to reduce the cognitive load on users. If the approach is implemented well, the user is able to perceive information at the periphery of their vision without having to switch their entire attention to processing the information. An example of such an information technology is the smartphone – we often use them in a split attention situation, walking along the street. We watch for cars and pedestrians, but we’re still able to work with the phone. This scenario assumes that the mobile app has been designed with the user’s split attention while being mobile in mind. Transport environments are also split attention environments. There are trains or buses coming and going, customers may be talking with friends or on the phone, or listening to music, or checking their wallet for a ticket – a myriad of possible distractions.
And as soon as you are in a split attention scenario your cognitive abilities will go down. This is why the information has to be presented in a simple and ambient way. It cannot be too prescribing – think Microsoft Clippy – because it will distract and annoy customers, particularly those who may not need the assistance of the information. But it must also be easily accessible to those who do need assistance.