Thursday, November 02, 2006

At your presence's convenience

Several researches agree that people are very ineffective at working on too many things at the same time, because of the limited human multitasking capabilities. They conclude that switching from one task to another is particularly costly, especially if the current task has an important cognitive load, as opposed to repetitive tasks based on pattern recognition. When taken in the context of the ever increasing reliance on information, nowadays human attention has become a scarce resource whereas information abounds.

I particularly appreciate the "savor" Alec Saunder's brings to the reflection on interruptions when he writes:

One of the casualties of the last 25 years has been the social compact governing when it is acceptable to interrupt, and when not 125 years ago, before the telephone, if a gentleman wanted to meet another gentleman, he'd send his man around with a calling card to invite the other to meet. It was the presence of its day. It's a metaphor that we really need to examine carefully, because there's much to be learned that is applicable now First, it's completely individual. Whether I choose to meet with Mike, but not Ted, is completely dependent on the circumstances and context the requestor and requested parties find themselves in. Second, the decision making process is completely private. Unlike presence today ("Hey, I can see he's online, but he's not answering my ping! Ignorant b*stard!"), the decision making process was completely opaque to the caller.

He goes on saying that “presence does not model the social contract between individuals”, but rather the cold behavior of communication device. I would furthermore add that "immediacy" has taken down all the polite approach that was allowing the choice of the "time and place" by the parties. By denying this choice, presence notifications in their current forms take a growing part at lowering people's already diminished attention support.

Whilst at the level of the perception (see, hear, feel) people's attention is influenced by external stimuli, goals, motivations, and intentions impact how they focus their attention. Furthermore, these two processes constantly interact to determine one's attention state. In a group, for example, an external stimulus may attract a member's attention, but the lack of motivation for the proposed focus will quickly divert its attention to another item. Alternatively, one may have a strong motivation to focus on a certain item, but an inappropriate presentation of the item content may hinder the desired focus to be established. Perturbations of the delicate balance between perception and motivation often results in an attention deficit, and in turn in lower productivity.

In situations of frequent interruptions or tasks alternance, researchers have noted a significant increase in cognitive load following the actions necessary to restore the context of an interrupted task. Resuming a task is already difficult in the context of current workstation interfaces, as these interfaces use an "application oriented" rather than "task oriented" approach to computer activities. In order to complete a task a user is obliged to fragment the task in subtasks, such as collecting data from a spreadsheet and pasting it in a word processor document. This artificial fragmentation of the original task increases the cognitive load on the user, and interruptions further erode its attention support.
As multi-tasking and interruptions become the norm in working environments, it is important for awareness systems to support the user's attention by supplying personalized and adaptable notification, thus reducing the resulting disruption. Interruption and notification must take into account many factors spanning across the various aspects of attention and contribute to making an interruption more or less appropriate or disruptive. In my opinion, the most important aspects to consider must include:

  • The context of interruption,
  • The timing of the interruption,
  • The content of the interruption.

As I stated earlier, in face to face situations, human beings are able, in a very short time, and with a limited knowledge of other people's activity, of deciding whether an interruption would be acceptable or not. In particular, I believe the exact point in time when the notification is delivered makes a significant difference on whether and how the interruption is perceived and on how much disruption it will bring to the current task.
Recent studies on notification timing have highlighted four types of solutions to manage user interruptions: "immediate, negotiated, mediated, and scheduled". Interruptions can be delivered at the soonest (immediate), or the person has explicit control over when they will handle the interruption (negotiation). A third party system may also dynamically decide when best to interrupt the user (mediated), or always hold all interruptions and deliver them at a predefined time (scheduled). In most situations negotiation is said to be the best choice. But I believe adding feedback to presence will require exploring dynamic combinations of negotiation and mediation.

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