Comments: My Interface Ate My Attention

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.

Posted by Korgmeister at March 7, 2004 10:17 AM

There are as many translators as there are humans.

Posted by O'Brien Megan at March 18, 2004 07:15 AM