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Pre-attentive processing, as the name suggests is the initial stage of processing information by our brain where certain characteristics are immediately detected without focusing on an object.  This act is done quickly and effortlessly where the brain tries to recognize certain visual attributes that make things stand out or show groupings of similar objects.  Color, shapes, position, orientation, proximity, size and motion are some of the elements that can be easily detected pre-attentively by the human mind.  The examples below show how the brain immediately spots anomalies because of their attributes.


While designing a dashboard we rely a lot on showing visual attributes of data for quick and easy detection so pre-attentive processing becomes an important aspect to consider.  The ability of the human mind to recognize and process information at light speed can be used advantageously in order to show data outliers and similarities in data in a dashboard.

Applying visual attributes to a dashboard like a bright color or an icon that stands out from the rest of the information can justify the purpose of a dashboard making it easy for a user to gauge the situation at a glance.  As shown in the example below, color and icon is used as an attribute to highlight numbers that need attention.


Color is a strong perceptive attribute but there are others that vary in intensity, like difference in shape is not as striking as contrasting colors. Depending on what information needs to be shown, whether qualitative or quantitative, various attributes can be applied.


Visually encoding data for rapid perception can make information consumption in a dashboard extremely easy and convenient for a user. And since a dashboard is a summary or high-level information providing system, it is important to strive to be as visually informative as possible to target the pre-attentive senses in a user.

So, the use of pre-attentive information processing techniques while designing dashboards can not only justify the purpose of the dashboard but also help in projecting information as needed.