Monday, December 7, 2009

Distractions and their price

My favourite themes at present seem to be multitasking and backchannels and I return to the former once again. New and interesting articles on multitasking just keep coming and the latest one to catch my attention is new research into the effects of pop-ups on our computer screens. In this case it's not the brash, flashing pop-up ads that explode in your face on sites of a dubious nature, it's the pop-up alerts we get to tell us that a new e-mail, tweet or Facebook update has arrived. How much do such interruptions disturb our concentration?

That's the theme of research by Dr Helen Hodgetts and Professor Dylan Jones of Cardiff University entitled Now, where was I? Cognitive models and support mechanisms for interrupted task performance. They show that these interruptions break our cognitive focus and it can take a minute or two to get back on track even when the interruption was of little significance. Not surprisingly the louder or more obvious the alert the greater the disturbance. Evidently discrete audio warning alerts can give us time to decide whether to notice or ignore the coming message and thereby maintaining concentration. The moral of the story is that alerts should be as discrete as possible and that we should be able to personalize them according to situation.

I also plead guilty to allowing alerts to interrupt me while trying to concentrate on reading or writing (right now, though, I've only got background music). I think most of us find it difficult to turn off the e-mail, instant messaging, Twitter, cellphone etc when we really need to concentrate. I really must shut them down more often even if it is fun to communicate.

For more on this research read a report on Live Science, Workers should turn off visual alerts, and from Wales Online, Curse of the computer pop-up costs us so dear.

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