Visual search is one of the most common—and complicated—cognitive abilities that people use. And it is the most critical skill needed to keep the traveling public safe in airports around the world.

At the simplest level, visual search is just looking for something among a set of other things. We do this all the time in our normal daily activities; people look through their fridge for last week’s leftovers, they look around a playground to find their ever-moving toddler, they scan their email inbox for a particular message, etc. Other visual searches are much more critical; airport security officers search X-ray images for prohibited items, radiologists scan X-ray images for tumors, military personnel search a crowd for a potential bad guy, border patrol agents monitor for potential events, the coast guard searches for people in trouble, etc.

Most visual searches relies on a 5 key cognitive abilities:

(1) memory/knowledge—you need to know what is the thing you are searching for and what things are not that

(2) attention—you have to focus on some aspects of your area at the cost of other areas/things

(3) perception—you have to process what you are looking at

(4) decision making—you have to ultimately decide if what you are seeing in a target or not

(5) response—you have to act on your final decision from the search.

The above list of the cognitive skills that are involved in visual search is both exciting and daunting. On one hand, it is intriguing that so many different aspects go into such a seemingly simple act. On the other hand, it is troubling, as each aspect provides its own point of possible failure. Each step of the visual search process is a place where a mistake can be made, leading to the wrong outcome. The fact that visual searches can so easily lead to errors is scary when considering critical searches that must be done both correctly and efficiently, or actual lives could be lost.

In aviation security screening, visual search is the unavoidable bottleneck to the effectiveness of the checkpoint. The most efficient passenger management solutions are useless without accurate threat detection. Lots of new technologies are being created to help make visual searches more accurate, quicker, more automatic, etc., but at the end of the day the search is performed by an officer and automation appears to be years away. The ability of officers to successfully navigate all 5 of the key cognitive processes described above determines the safety of the traveling public.

From research in the field of cognitive psychology, it is clear that there are significant individual differences between people in their ability to perform visual searches—some people are better at visual search than others. Kedlin Screening International (KSI) leveraged this understanding and their specific scientific expertise to design a brief (~15 minute) assessment of visual search ability. This assessment can be used to improve the visual search capabilities of an entire screening workforce by informing the hiring of new officers, and the allocation of the current workforce and the allocation of training resources for the current workforce.

Needless to say, we want the right people doing this job, we want them to be appropriately trained and regularly assessed, and we want them to have all of the latest insights needed to do their job at a high level. Improvements to the core bottleneck of the screening process (visual search success) can increase the accuracy of officers and the safety of the traveling public while simultaneously increasing operational efficiency to reduce wait times.

This blog post is the 1st in a series from KSI—follow us on LinkedIn to see our upcoming posts that will tackle a range of issues including: the science behind visual search, the pros and cons of workforce specialization, the pros and cons of remote screening, various factors that can make visual searches less successful, training vs. selection/allocation, and more.