Managing Attention in User Interfaces

Most of the time we waste with computers, aside from playing games and watching movies, is wasted because we don't manage effectively our attentional resources. I am convinced that we have to make extra efforts in configuring our computer in such a way so that it doesn't distract us, doesn't call attention to things that can wait until the time is appropriate for us to act on it.

I had a recent long discussion with Manas Tungare and Pardha Pyla about this issue. We agreed that a large part of our personal information habits is not so much about managing information but about managing action. We move information from here to there so that we have it readily available to act on it. What we are trying to do is minimize the distraction that the information causes, or said it the other way, is we try to maximize the opportunity for action.

A colleague recently told me how she used to put the bills for her house in her paper planner at the day when she needed to pay them. She indicated how she never forgot to make the payments because that morning she would open her planner and right there in front of her were all the bills due that day. The electronic version of this simple solution is not as easy. Managing the action of paying the bills was much simpler when all of our information was encoded in atoms instead of bits.

It is always cool to find a piece of software that allows me to more effectively manage my attention. What is more surprising is to find one written by someone I see weekly. The software: MailBadger. The person: Tony Allevato. The MailBadger program is truly a gem. What is does is lets you separate the little "unread email badge" that appears in the icon into separate badges. Here is a picture of how mine looks now.

This shows three badges in the icon. The top left (maroon) is new emails in my VT account, the top right (blue) is the number of new emails in my GMail account. The bottom right is number of new emails from members of my family. The badges are configurable with a series of rules that allows you to decide what to include in the counts.

This is a great way for me to manage my attention to new email and react accordingly. It helps me manage my interruptions better. As it is, I have set to get new messages only once an hour. Now even once an hour, I can decide how urgent some of those messages might be.

Posted on 03/12/2009



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