May We Have Your Attention, Please?

May We Have Your Attention, Please?

With the workplace ever more full of distractions, researchers are developing tools to keep us on task

June 12, 2008, 5:00PM EST

It’s official: The average knowledge worker has the attention span of a
sparrow. Roughly once every three minutes, typical cubicle dwellers set
aside whatever they’re doing and start something else—anything else. It
could be answering the phone, checking e-mail, responding to an instant
message, clicking over to YouTube (GOOG),
or posting something amusing on Facebook. Constant interruptions are
the Achilles’ heel of the information economy in the U.S. These
distractions consume as much as 28% of the average U.S. worker’s day,
including recovery time, and sap productivity to the tune of $650
billion a year, according to Basex, a business research company in New
York City.


Soon, however, the same kinds of social networking software and
communications technologies that make it deliciously easy to lose
concentration may start steering us back to the tasks at hand.
Scientists at U.S. research labs are developing tools to help people
prioritize the flood of information they face and fend off irrelevant
info-bytes. New modes of e-mail and phone messaging can wait patiently
for an opportune time to interrupt. One program allows senders to
"whisper" something urgent via a pop-up on a screen.

Innovations like these belong to a sub-branch of computer science
that’s geekily called "attentional user interfaces." The goal, says
Scott E. Hudson, a professor in this discipline at Carnegie Mellon
University, is finding a way to reap benefits from the data deluge
"without having it destroy us on the attention side."

Ours is hardly the first generation to fret about distraction.
Humans are essentially interruption-driven because they must be alert
to change, says Gary Marcus, author of Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind.
"We’re not built to stay on task," he contends. But people in past eras
never had to cope with so much beeping, blinking, pinging, and ringing.
Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California
at Irvine, monitored thousands of hours of workplace behavior. Her
studies documented that most workers switch gears every few minutes,
and once they’re distracted, it can take nearly half an hour to get
back on track. "When you see the hard numbers, it kind of hits home how
bad it really is," says Mark.


One solution might be to construct a work world supported by
all-seeing, ultra-organized digital assistants. Eric Horvitz, a
principal researcher at Microsoft (MSFT),
has spent more than a decade creating artificial-intelligence systems
that observe humans at work. These software programs, which reside on
computers and various handheld gadgets, watch and listen to the user,
tracking digital calendars and noting key contacts. And they apply
mathematical formulas known as Bayesian probability models to predict
the cost and benefit of interrupting someone at work. Having served as
a guinea pig, Horvitz considers his latest prototype a trusted
"presence." Recently, he received an urgent e-mail from a new intern.
His e-mail triage program, called Priorities, ranked the message 100—a
perfect score on a timeliness scale of 1-100. That afternoon, an
announcement of "free food" down the hall ranked an ignorable 6.

This trusted presence isn’t ready for prime time. But Priorities
inspired Microsoft to create Outlook Mobile Manager, a product that
enables Outlook to recognize urgent e-mails and to do "presence
forecasting." That means users of OMM 2.0 can essentially let the
software decide whether e-mails should be routed to their computers,
phones, or some other device. Future versions of Windows will likely
include another feature born in Horvitz’s lab. Called Bounded Deferral,
the feature holds messages in reserve until the recipient is ready for
a "cognitive break." The ideal, says Horvitz, is "software that takes
the fragility of human attention into deep consideration."

In contrast to Horvitz’s sweeping, soup-to-nuts attention management strategy, IBM (IBM)
favors a human-centric à la carte approach. One prototype it’s testing
is an instant-messaging answering machine known as IMSavvy that allows
messages to tap gently at your consciousness. Invented by Gary Hsieh, a
graduate student of Scott Hudson at Carnegie Mellon who served as an
intern at IBM, the program can sense when you are away or busy by your
typing and mouse patterns. It protects your focus by telling would-be
interrupters you are not available. But it also suggests ways they can
get through to you. Future versions may gauge "interruptibility" by
using audio sensors, too. "It’s just what your mom said: Don’t
interrupt when someone is talking,’" Hudson says.

But what about the dicier judgment calls? Picture the moment when
the phone has fallen silent, your in-boxes are closed, and you’re lost
in a creative thought. Even the smartest digital assistant is likely to
conclude it’s safe to interrupt, but this is dangerous territory. "If
you handle the exception cases wrong, your users will stop using your
tool," says IBM team leader Jennifer Lai.

She found a solution in a time-honored social convention. If you pop
into a co-worker’s office when he’s on the phone, he may try to wave
you away but will listen if you whisper some important news. IMSavvy
offers you a "whisper" option, with text that flickers on the
recipient’s screen, even if he has instructed the system to withhold
his messages. "Instead of trying to predict if an interruption is good
or bad, we want to give people lightweight tools to help them do the
right thing," says Lai.


In her new book, Distracted (Prometheus Books),
Maggie Jackson explores the latest discoveries about attention and how
we concentrate. It details the rising costs of living in a split-focus


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