March 06, 2004

My Interface Ate My Attention

I just realized I spent over two hours watching an interface (eMule, if anybody is interested).

Did I need to? No, the program did what it was supposed to. There was no need for me to intervene directly even if there was something wrong. Did it tell me something new? Not really, most of the information was only about a current state that would vanish soon. Was it interesting? Not really. And yet I sat there watching numbers update themselves, progress bars advancing, twiddling with ways of ordering the displays and so on. I might be an information addict, but I think this is a general problem: many interfaces eat our attention.

The brain has an orientation system that directs our gaze and attention at things that are happening. This system is not under voluntary control (unless you are a Zen master), making anything that moves in the periphery of our vision or breaks off from the surroundings a strong attractor... and hence a distractor if you were trying to do something else.

Interfaces with moving information (like progress bars, animated icons, numbers that update, lists where items change position or animated music visualisations) direct our attention to the changes. Try to do something else on the desktop and attention will be moved back to the program even by the moves in a partially uncovered window. This is nothing truly new; the plague of animated gifs on webpages demonstrate the problem well.

What I think is worrying is that as our software becomes more autonomous it is going to be doing a lot more in realtime, and this information is assumed by the designers to be wanted by the users. This is often true, since we humans dislike devices we cannot control or at least get the assumption of control from by watching their action. So we get displays of information that update incessantly, eating our precious attention. Moving attention away from them is hard since it is constantly re-attracted, especially if there are things to "do" with the display. Rather than create something or even consume high-quality information we sit there consuming junk information.

What about turning them off or iconifying them? In some cases it is impossible (or at least not the default), like the little animated net traffic graph from my firewall in the system tray. But even when a program is hidden we are aware of their existence and the constant information that we are now not seeing. Maybe I'm too easily distracted, but the idea of something showing information that I am not seeing makes me want to occasionally seek it out and check on what is going on... and then I get stuck watching it.

P2P programs might be even more dangerous: they reward us by occasionally giving us files to open, presumably with contents we like. So constant attention is rewarded by increased expectations ("only 10 seconds left... 9... 8....") that are released by the arrival of the file and then a quick perusal. This is a recipe for addiction.

So, what to do? In many ways windowing systems are bad for attention since they promote multitasking between different contexts - each switch between one mental task or context costs us attention (and the risk of being distracted into a third task), just as task-switching is expensive for operating systems. Maybe we should have a grand iconoclasm and defenestration and go back to the black and white purity of the shell. But even there the aptly named curses package and other animated progress information lurk. Besides, there are plenty of necessary uses of graphical user interfaces (like in computer graphics). Babies and bathwater.

A simpler approach is just to promote awareness of the problem of information eaters. Just as all good web-design courses tell people about the problem of animated gifs all interface design courses ought to make people aware of the problem of attention-eating interfaces. Most progress bars are uneccessary or take too much space; a tiny indicator that things haven't locked up is enough (is it possible to do a non-animated such indicator? Maybe a color slowly changing?). Interfaces shouldn't by default show too much junk information - let the user request it.

We also need to figure out how to create more discreet technology. When everything is autonomous and contains state information, we need to deliberately make it discreet in order not to overwhelm ourselves. In many ways the sound/vibrations of a hard drive is ideal: usually too low to be troublesome, but gives information about system state that we tend to pick up on. The same ought to go for our applications, so that we usually can ignore them but also note when something unusual is going on at our firewall and that our web trader is getting frustrated.

In the end, it is all about the attention economy. Attention is valuable. If you squander it as a person you lose out on life and life quality. If you squander it for others through spam or bad interfaces, then you are a kind of vandal.

Posted by Anders at March 6, 2004 02:35 PM

It is a sign of maturity when a technology becomes invisible and simply "is just there". It's also kind of funny how a technology isn't used to it's full potential until we don't see it anymore.

I wonder when computers will get there.

I like the twist with the attention economy at the end. Attention is the new dollar.

Posted by: Erik Starck at March 6, 2004 03:02 PM

It is the same with good typography and design: you don't see it when it is good, it just gives you a luxurious feeling. It is bad design that we notice.

One shouldn't accept bad design, but people seem to be far too willing to use bad software compared to bad cars, bad microwave owens and bad tools. Clearly a sign that it is an immature technology where we do not have good design principles and not enough choice. But the more people accept bad software, the less evolutionary pressure there will be to fix it.

Posted by: Anders at March 6, 2004 03:16 PM

First, what do you do with eMule? As if I can't guess.

Second, kudos on correctly using "discreet". Too many native English-speakers confuse it with "discrete".

Seriously, the problem you identify here strikes home. I have spent hours slowly watching peer-to-peer software update. The anticipation-reward conditioning overcomes for me even the lag of very slow connections; e.g., VNC over SSH over dial-up. It seems the more valuable one finds the result of software's work, the more trouble one will bear. This trouble usually comes from a bad human-computer-interface, but not always. Microsoft Word makes a good counter-example. The interface does a very good job of emulating a typewriter, but the program itself has many problems. It has bugs, performs slowly, hides features, costs way too much, and so on. I strive for minimalist interfaces on the computers I use. On Windows, I have only one icon cluttering the desktop: the Recycle Bin. On other machines, I have none. In fact, a screenshot of my usual desktop would show a flat blue screen. Everything gets hidden out of sight and mind _by default_. This avoids distractions, but it does conceal some state information from me.

Ideally, I'd have a transparent xterm tailing off the various system logs as the root window. The text color would depend on the severity and timeliness of the message. A bright shade of the background blue for timely or important messages, with increasingly closer matches for older or less important information.

I don't think the sound of a hard drive running really approaches the ideal. You make a good point, but it only holds because you don't use the computer's audio output as much as its video output. (Admittedly, an assumption.) Would a professional musician find the whirring and clicking of a hard drive so useful, or would it merely distract from the computer's more important output? I think the latter.

Progress in this area might come rapidly after wearable computers grow common. A computer that constantly competes for attention will only succeed if its interface poses no real threat to the user. Imagine a wearable computer monitoring eMule, perhaps by showing a VNC client's image of the screen. Would you try walking with that? Would you try bicycling? Holding a conversation? Driving? Perhaps future interfaces will need to model their users to avoid saturating their attention. This has already become a problem for USAF pilots in high-performance aircraft, but I can't give references.

See also

The Humane Interface
Persuasive Interfaces

No links, as I really should write a report for work with my attention. Something seems to have distracted me.

Posted by: Jay Dugger at March 6, 2004 05:23 PM

Although I know that most people would probably agree with me, I am almost embarrased to admit I get the most "real" work done the days when my internet connection doesn't work.

If it isn't email or message boards such as this, it's news sites or blogs that just might contain some newly posted "unmissable" item that I have to check out. There's always something out there calling for my attention. My focus point jumps from website to website like a bumblebee on a flower field.

That's why I have come to appreciate a good old book so much more over the last couple of years. A book is narrow and deep, the web is infinitely wide but relatively shallow.

Maybe the web experience would benefit from a more linear presentation, more like a book and less like a ripped apart news paper with little pieces spread out all over the floor.

Don't ask me how to get there, though. Any thoughts?

Posted by: Erik Starck at March 6, 2004 07:45 PM

Having finished the report, I now return to this distraction.

If you find the resources of the Internet too distracting, perhaps greater discrimination will help. Try this exercise. For a two-week period, save absolutely everything you find on the Net of any interest at all. Store it in directories, organized by date. For instance,

more sparkly stuff/
that looks good/
you get the idea/

See how much you accumulate. The unix command "wget" might well help. If your software allows, print pages to PDF or *.ps. After the two week period, see how much still holds your interest.

The exercise should help you raise your standard of interest and attention. It has limits, but I leave these for you to discover.

Posted by: Jay Dugger at March 6, 2004 10:12 PM

I think the Internet observation is very true. One of my most productive weekends was spent on the airport hotel of Newark, New Jersey. My hotel room had an excellent view of the Budweiser factory and a parking lot, it was raining and the Internet connection was slow and in the lobby. I came up with lots of research ideas, wrote several papers and generally enjoyed my creativity while surrounded by gray monotony.

We are still used to that hunting information is hard while digesting it is easy. But today the opposite is true: it is trivial to get a hundred papers on a subject, but reading and understanding them takes far more effort. But we still tend to hunt, leaving the digestion for another day.

An excellent idea for the exercise, Jay. I'll try that one out. In a way it reminds me of Gelernter's Lifestreams idea to replace the desktop:

Posted by: Anders at March 7, 2004 04:22 AM

Steven Den Beste has written an essay on this topic called "Beige is Beautiful" and I've noticed alot of similarities.

You may find it interesting:

As for me, I don't get distracted by interfaces much because I have an incredibly short attention span. Even changing progress bars tend to bore me after a few minutes at most.

Although admittedly if I had a broadband connection instead of dialup, this may become a problem.

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