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Understanding Visual Risk Communication Messages: An Analysis of Visual Attention Allocation and Think-Aloud Responses to Tornado Graphics

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  • 1 College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity, University at Albany, State University of New York, Albany, New York
  • | 2 Department of Agricultural Education and Communications, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas
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Abstract

Online channels for communicating risk frequently include features and technological capabilities to support sharing images of risk. In particular, the affordances found in social media, such as Twitter, include the ability to attach maps, photographs, videos, and other graphical information. The inclusion of visual cues such as colors and shapes and their different sizes are important for making sense of approaching threats, populations at risk, the potential impacts, and ranges of associated uncertainty. The reception of and attention to these visual cues in messages about a potential threat is the necessary first stage to making a decision about protective actions. Understanding what visual features capture individual attention and how attention is directed to visual images of risk on social media has the potential to affect the design of risk communication messages and the protective actions that follow. In this paper we use eye-tracking methods to identify where people allocate attention to a series of tweets and qualitative “think alouds” to determine what features of the tweets people attend to in their visual field are salient to message receivers. We investigate visual attention to a series of tweets that depict an emerging tornado threat to identify areas of visual interest and the properties of those visual cues that elicit attention. We find the use of color, properties of text presentation, and contents of messages affect attention allocation. These findings could help practitioners as they design and disseminate their weather messages to inform the public of emerging threats.

Significance Statement

Tornadoes frequently pose an imminent threat to individuals, requiring quick decision-making and protective actions. To date, much research has investigated how people perceive and respond behaviorally to warning messages sent over short messaging channels. However, limited research has addressed how people allocate attention to messages, that is, what they actively look at, and how the attributes of warning messages influence attention. In this study, we use eye tracking to explore where participants allocate visual attention to the message and use qualitative “think alouds” to determine how visual features in the messages influence attention. These results point the way toward better message design. For example, message designers should carefully consider their use of color to indicate threat type, threat level, and areas of risk, ensuring that colors are accurately labeled and used consistently. We found that attention was drawn to visual cues of difference, such as the use of all capital letters and changes in color; message designers should incorporate these techniques into their communication strategies. Future studies may find that different visual manipulations of images and text have an impact on attention allocation and message processing.

© 2021 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Jeannette Sutton, jsutton@albany.edu

Abstract

Online channels for communicating risk frequently include features and technological capabilities to support sharing images of risk. In particular, the affordances found in social media, such as Twitter, include the ability to attach maps, photographs, videos, and other graphical information. The inclusion of visual cues such as colors and shapes and their different sizes are important for making sense of approaching threats, populations at risk, the potential impacts, and ranges of associated uncertainty. The reception of and attention to these visual cues in messages about a potential threat is the necessary first stage to making a decision about protective actions. Understanding what visual features capture individual attention and how attention is directed to visual images of risk on social media has the potential to affect the design of risk communication messages and the protective actions that follow. In this paper we use eye-tracking methods to identify where people allocate attention to a series of tweets and qualitative “think alouds” to determine what features of the tweets people attend to in their visual field are salient to message receivers. We investigate visual attention to a series of tweets that depict an emerging tornado threat to identify areas of visual interest and the properties of those visual cues that elicit attention. We find the use of color, properties of text presentation, and contents of messages affect attention allocation. These findings could help practitioners as they design and disseminate their weather messages to inform the public of emerging threats.

Significance Statement

Tornadoes frequently pose an imminent threat to individuals, requiring quick decision-making and protective actions. To date, much research has investigated how people perceive and respond behaviorally to warning messages sent over short messaging channels. However, limited research has addressed how people allocate attention to messages, that is, what they actively look at, and how the attributes of warning messages influence attention. In this study, we use eye tracking to explore where participants allocate visual attention to the message and use qualitative “think alouds” to determine how visual features in the messages influence attention. These results point the way toward better message design. For example, message designers should carefully consider their use of color to indicate threat type, threat level, and areas of risk, ensuring that colors are accurately labeled and used consistently. We found that attention was drawn to visual cues of difference, such as the use of all capital letters and changes in color; message designers should incorporate these techniques into their communication strategies. Future studies may find that different visual manipulations of images and text have an impact on attention allocation and message processing.

© 2021 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Jeannette Sutton, jsutton@albany.edu
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