The science of interruptions Matt 17 Oct 2005

20 comments Latest by swati

How important is screen size? Meet the Life Hackers, a look at people who are trying to re-engineer high-tech work distractions, discusses a study where participants were given a 42-inch screen vs. a 15-inch one. One veteran researcher claimed he has “never seen a single tweak to a computer system so significantly improve a user’s productivity.” On the bigger screen, people completed the tasks at least 10 percent more quickly - and some as much as 44 percent more quickly.

Now researchers are looking for new ways to maximize screen space, including a radar screen approach with blips that represent things like emails and appointments.

The clearer your screen, she found, the calmer your mind. So her group began devising tools that maximized screen space by grouping documents and programs together - making it possible to easily spy them out of the corner of your eye, ensuring that you would never forget them in the fog of your interruptions. Another experiment created a tiny round window that floats on one side of the screen; moving dots represent information you need to monitor, like the size of your in-box or an approaching meeting. It looks precisely like the radar screen in a military cockpit.

After the jump: bits on high-tech distractions in the workplace, the secrets of “sickeningly overprolific” software engineers, and (sing it all together now) the importance of simplicity.

Information is no longer a scarce resource - attention is. A scientist of human-computer interactions recently studied how high-tech devices affect office work behavior.

Each employee spent only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted and whisked off to do something else. What’s more, each 11-minute project was itself fragmented into even shorter three-minute tasks, like answering e-mail messages, reading a Web page or working on a spreadsheet. And each time a worker was distracted from a task, it would take, on average, 25 minutes to return to that task. To perform an office job today, it seems, your attention must skip like a stone across water all day long, touching down only periodically.

Once interrupted, people often forget what they were working on.

This is part of the reason that, when someone is interrupted, it takes 25 minutes to cycle back to the original task. Once their work becomes buried beneath a screenful of interruptions, office workers appear to literally forget what task they were originally pursuing. We do not like to think we are this flighty: we might expect that if we are, say, busily filling out some forms and are suddenly distracted by a phone call, we would quickly return to finish the job. But we don’t. Researchers find that 40 percent of the time, workers wander off in a new direction when an interruption ends, distracted by the technological equivalent of shiny objects. The central danger of interruptions, Czerwinski realized, is not really the interruption at all. It is the havoc they wreak with our short-term memory: What the heck was I just doing?

Technology writer Danny O’Brien tried to figure out the secrets of 70 of the most “sickeningly overprolific” people he knew, most of whom were software engineers of one kind or another.

But their suggestions were surprisingly low-tech. None of them used complex technology to manage their to-do lists: no Palm Pilots, no day-planner software. Instead, they all preferred to find one extremely simple application and shove their entire lives into it. Some of O’Brien’s correspondents said they opened up a single document in a word-processing program and used it as an extra brain, dumping in everything they needed to remember - addresses, to-do lists, birthdays - and then just searched through that file when they needed a piece of information. Others used e-mail - mailing themselves a reminder of every task, reasoning that their in-boxes were the one thing they were certain to look at all day long.

When it comes to technology, simplicity is the key factor for more and more people.

But for many users, simplicity now trumps power. Linda Stone, the software executive who has worked alongside the C.E.O.’s of both Microsoft and Apple, argues that we have shifted eras in computing. Now that multitasking is driving us crazy, we treasure technologies that protect us. We love Google not because it brings us the entire Web but because it filters it out, bringing us the one page we really need. In our new age of overload, the winner is the technology that can hold the world at bay.

20 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Chris 17 Oct 05

All I need is an Apple 23” Cinema Display, Exposť and an Apple 17” Display for my e-mail. Interruptions, whilst they happen, result in virtually no time lost beyond the length of the interruption…

Except for when my RSS feed flags up another SvN posting!

Rahul 17 Oct 05

I’m confused as to how a radar screen showing me a lot of moving blips and flashing dots wouldn’t distract me from doing my job. If there were constantly something alerting me of something else, I’d be continually poised to check on that and end up not doing my actual work.

My own solution has proven pretty effective too: I use a Windows computer and just set the taskbar to auto-hide at the top of the screen, with a minimal (also on auto-hide) set of shortcuts at the bottom. So when I’m working, all I see is what I’m working on, and it takes an alt-tab or an application popup to distract me. I guess in that sense “greater screen size” has begotten me improved productivity.. but I didn’t need no steenking novel radar-dot-blip-map to do it!

Don Wilson 17 Oct 05

I just visited a 30” Apple Cinema display Sunday and just realized how big it really is. For $3000 and the ability to be my TV as well as computer monitor, to have that much more space is definately worth it.

Some of OíBrienís correspondents said they opened up a single document in a word-processing program and used it as an extra brain, dumping in everything they needed to remember - addresses, to-do lists, birthdays - and then just searched through that file when they needed a piece of information. Others used e-mail - mailing themselves a reminder of every task, reasoning that their in-boxes were the one thing they were certain to look at all day long.

Both of those things I do down to the T. I email myself links and reminders because I know it’ll always be there when I’ve got time to check.

Jeff Atwood 17 Oct 05

You can never have enough screen space.

I’ve used three 19” LCDs on both my work and home PCs for the last two years!

http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/images/vertigo_desk.JPG

(crappy pic, but you get the idea.)

I think three displays may be the point of diminishing returns. More than three, and my head would have to be on a swivel to view them all.

I recommend this setup highly. It’s also FAR more affordable than a single 30” display. Actually, now that I think about it, it offers more screen space as well.

Nick 17 Oct 05

Give me Expose set to go when I press down on my scroll wheel, my 20” iMac + my 21” old school Studio Display (requires a 3rd party utility to work) and I’ve got all the real estate I need.

The real saver here is Expose, not having it in the Microsoft world has certainly hurt my productivity when I changed jobs and had to “switchback” at work.

David 17 Oct 05

Instead, they all preferred to find one extremely simple application and shove their entire lives into it.

Which is why I can never get myself to use all the web apps. Until they all live in my Inbox, they never get my attention.

JP 17 Oct 05

Agreed. I got hooked on multiple monitors when I used to day trade futures - I had 6 monitors going at all times. I’ve dropped it down to 3 just like Jeff’s picture, but I can’t imagine working with 1 monitor. Having multiple monitors increases productivity tremendously.

Brady Joslin 17 Oct 05

For multiple monitors, check out Synergy:
http://synergy2.sourceforge.net/

The free software lets you use the same keyboard and mouse for your multiple monitor setup without any hardware. Simply scroll the mouse off the screen of on monitor/system and it appears on the other. You can even copy/paste across systems. Not sure how I worked without it. Perk - works across Mac, *nix and Windows.

Don Wilson 17 Oct 05

Recently I’ve been forcing myself to not have everything maximized when I’m working because I typically lose interest in what I’m doing because I have less information in front of me.

Jeff Atwood 17 Oct 05

> I canít imagine working with 1 monitor. Having multiple monitors increases productivity tremendously

There’s lots of other data out there to support this, too — not just the single study cited. One display means you’re cheating yourself out of productivity, period.

I’d also argue that 23-30” displays are for the rich (how much does a 41” display cost?), whereas multiple 19” panels is an affordable solution for most people.

> check out Synergy:

This is cool, but just to clarify, Synergy is only useful across multiple computers.

For 2+ displays hooked up to the *same single computer*, Synergy doesn’t do anything useful.

Aaron Post 17 Oct 05

Guess thats why I have you control : desktops, it helps expand the desktop without the monitors. Although back at the office I still connect to the 19”.

—Sorry mac only.

phil 17 Oct 05

agreeds on the screen size. the other big productivity enhancer for developers is a great IDE (like IntelliJ IDEA). That’s the big piece missing from Ruby.

Dave Marks 17 Oct 05

3 monitors here and I couldn’t live without them

Check out Multimon from www.realtimesoft.com - taskbars on each monitor and lots of handy features

Ron Lusk 17 Oct 05

Combine it all, then:


  • dual-heads on my primary Linux workstation;

  • multiple virtual desktops (via KDE) on my Linux system:
    on the one,

    • one for development;

    • one for web-browsing

    • one for the IDE (Eclipse, when doing Java)

    • one for VNC to the Windows servers I manage now and then;


    and on the right-hand monitor,

    • one for IM, time-keeping (karm), reference (Acrobat Reader open to my Ruby and Rails PDFs), and a small browser open to other Rails documentation;

    • one for use with Citrix to have an IE browser open on our highly-browser-specific service ticket program.



  • Synergy to move me across three computers (the dual-headed Linux system, the Windows box (with the SQL Server management tools), and my Linux notebook).


I don’t think I could be as productive with less than the eight screens I use.

RodeoClown 17 Oct 05

I have four monitors at work - one extra attached to my laptop, and two on my workstation. I think 4 is definitely proving diminishing returns - having to turn my head for the laptop kind of sucks - BUT it does mean that having IM and email on that screen don’t distract me by flashing in my field of vision.

One screen for a browser and two for my IDE (eclipse) works great.

I’d like bigger monitors - but I also like the way having two monitors ‘frames’ windows, so that a window on one screen feels distinct than two on a bigger screen.

Also - I don’t think using multiple virtual desktops counts as having more monitors - you still have a task-switching problem as you flick between them to find what you are looking for, whereas having all the stuff visible at once means you don’t have to go hunting to find the last thing you were working on. It’s just right there.

Edward O'Connor 18 Oct 05

Instead, they all preferred to find one extremely simple application and shove their entire lives into it.

Hence wanting to be able to get at/edit my Backpack from within Emacs. TEXTAREAs are so impoverished, and Emacs already has the rest of my life in it.

Roman Rytov 19 Oct 05

Read about three types of isolations one can combine to fight the disturbance factors and be more productive.

charlie 20 Oct 05

the military does a lot a research in how to increase the amount of info available to a soldier without bonking them out.

i know the air force and navy are particularly big on this for their pilots. there’s a lot of info they need to digest and really don’t have time to take it all in. i heard one story that in vietnam, pilots actually covered or turned off all the audio warnings just so they could focus on flying and fighting.

jason, do you know of any of this research?

Alexis Bellido 23 Apr 06

An extra monitor is great for productivity. When I moved from Windows to Linux completely last year, I couldn’t figure how to get my two monitors working again and I really missed it. I’m sure I lost much more time alt-tabbing between applications.

It took me some time but now I have my computer running Fedora with two monitors.

I’m a complete man once again :)

swati 05 Jul 06

i like this.thanx for it

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