Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Interruptions

"Continuous Partial Attention," the state of constant interruption that characterizes many of our lives get written about a fair bit in one form or another. See here, for example. Good article on the phenomenon in this New York Times article (with data. Perish the thought!)
Yet while interruptions are annoying, Mark's study also revealed their flip side: they are often crucial to office work. Sure, the high-tech workers grumbled and moaned about disruptions, and they all claimed that they preferred to work in long, luxurious stretches. But they grudgingly admitted that many of their daily distractions were essential to their jobs. When someone forwards you an urgent e-mail message, it's often something you really do need to see; if a cellphone call breaks through while you're desperately trying to solve a problem, it might be the call that saves your hide. In the language of computer sociology, our jobs today are "interrupt driven." Distractions are not just a plague on our work - sometimes they are our work. To be cut off from other workers is to be cut off from everything.

For a small cadre of computer engineers and academics, this realization has begun to raise an enticing possibility: perhaps we can find an ideal middle ground. If high-tech work distractions are inevitable, then maybe we can re-engineer them so we receive all of their benefits but few of their downsides. Is there such a thing as a perfect interruption?

Via this Joel on Software post

2 comments:

bot37363838 said...

I came to your blog via the Register article on Wikipedia.

The subject of interruptions at work interests me, because I've been trying to get some of my colleagues on board with Basecamp project management (from 37 Signals). Some of us get it, others do not.

Many complain that the emails from Basecamp notifying them of messages relating to their areas of responsibility are disruptive. Personally, I switch off email alerts, and look at mail when it's convenient to do so. Others have that message popping up on screen, which is annoying.

But if Basecamp sends you a message, it's always going to be work-related, so I think the problem is that a lot of people still don't see email as "work". I want to say to them, "If someone posts a message and marks it for your attention, it means they want you to look at it, and take some action or reply. Why do you see that as disruptive?"

Gordon Haff said...

Hi Rob,

I think it depends on the relevance and urgency of the automated messages in question and whether they're not better taken care of by "pull" (i.e. people checking a site) and having an occasional message that's truly urgent handled via a personalized email. It depends on the circumstances. If most of the Basecamp messages are truly priority interrupts, that's one thing. If most of them are routine status, it's something else. There's a lot of "FYI" at most big companies and just because someone sends me something doesn't mean I need to look at it.

I suspect there's no single "right" answer. In general, however, I don't think automated messages are typically (outside of a help desk workflow or whatever) a great way to flag important actions.

Gordon