The science of interruptions 17 Oct 2005
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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.