Interactive display systems give users flexibility to tailor their visual displays to different tasks and situations. However, in order for such flexibility to be beneficial, users need to understand how to tailor displays to different tasks (to possess "metarepresentational competence"). Recent research suggests that people may desire more complex and realistic displays than are most effective (Smallman & St. John, 2005). In Experiment 1, undergraduate students were tested on a comprehension task with geospatial displays (weather maps) that varied in the number of extraneous variables displayed. Their metacognitive judgments about the relative effectiveness of the displays were also solicited. Extraneous variables slowed response time and increased errors, but participants favored complex maps that looked more realistic about one third of the time. In Experiment 2, the eye fixations of undergraduate students were monitored as they performed the comprehension task. Complex maps that looked more realistic led to more eye fixations on both task-relevant and task-irrelevant regions of the displays. Experiment 3 compared performance of experienced meteorologists and undergraduate students on the comprehension and metacognitive tasks. Meteorologists were as likely as undergraduate students to prefer geographically complex (realistic) displays and more likely than undergraduates to opt for displays that added extraneous weather variables. However, meteorologists were also slower and less accurate with complex than with simple displays. This work highlights the importance of empirically testing principles of visual display design and suggests some limits to metarepresentational competence.
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