Mind if I interrupt you?

Notification centers and Apple Watches beg the question: what’s the best way to interrupt us properly?

We’ve been claiming information overload for decades, if not centuries. As a species, we’re pretty good at inventing new tools to deal with the problems of increasing information: language, libraries, broadcast, search, news feeds. A digital, always-on lifestyle certainly presents new challenges, but we’re quickly creating prosthetic filters to help us cope.

Now there’s a new generation of information management tools, in the form of wearables and watches. But notification centers and Apple Watches beg the question: what’s the best way to interrupt us properly? Already, tables of friends take periodic “phone breaks” to check in on their virtual worlds, something that might have been considered unthinkably gauche a few years ago.

Alistair_Croll_post_interruptionsSince the first phone let us ring a bell, uninvited, in a far-off house, we’ve been dealing with interruption. Smart interruption is useful: Stewart Brand said that the right information at the right time just changes your life; it follows, then, that the perfect interface is one that’s invisible until it’s needed, the way Google inserts hotel dates on a map, or flight times in your calendar, or reminders when you have to leave for your next meeting.

But all of this technology is interfering with reflection, introspection, and contemplation. In Alone Together, Sheri Turkle observes that it’s far easier to engage with tools like Facebook than it is to connect with actual humans because interactive technology’s availability makes it a junk-food substitute for actual interaction. My friend Hugh McGuire recently waxed rather poetically on the risks of constant interruption, and how he’d forgotten how to read because of it.

At work, modern productivity tools like Slack might do away with email conventions, encouraging better collaboration, but they do so at a cost because they work in a way that demands immediate attention, and that interrupts the natural rhythm we all need to write, to read, and to immerse ourselves in our surroundings. It’s hard to marinate when you’re being interrupted.

One message center to rule them all

This is made worse by the sprawl of modern messaging platforms. People with a smartphone often have multiple IM and phone channels: Google Voice, text messages, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Skype, FaceTime, and so on. It’d be nice to have only a few, well-managed, communications channels.

Of course, conventions change quickly: children avoid their parents’ social networks, making it hard for us to settle on standards, leaving us with the lowest common denominator of SMS. And every new startup is clamoring for attention, engagement, and the right to notify users.

One wrong message can disrupt an entire day — as Jon Bruner put it, “Whenever I’m on the phone and someone texts my Google Voice number, my entire environment explodes. Whatever queue of work I’d built for myself at the beginning of the day starts to fall apart under the incoming traffic.”

Notification centers are partisan, too. When we select a device — Android, iPhone, and so on — we’re delegating to it opinions about what’s important, and those opinions will likely be tied to their platform. The Apple Watch will want to use Apple Maps, the Android version will prefer Google Voice. In this way, attention management becomes a form of vendor lock-in because as soon as you use non-Apple communication channels on an Apple platform, the attention management won’t work as well. You’ll be punished with a barrage of bad interruption for stepping outside the orchard walls.

Hacking your interruptions

Most user interfaces make a lot of assumptions about what the user wants to do. An elevator’s buttons need to work for everyone; they don’t take long to learn. UX designers create affordances, suggest workflows, and help users gradually learn how the system works. But the more intimate the system, the more that people will want to make it their own — and few things are as intimate as a personal agent.

Once you get this close to an end user, effectively becoming a part of who they are and how they process the world around them, everyone’s unique. We’ll develop hacks atop our prosthetic brains, customizing them, because they’re us.

Watches and wearables don’t just deliver information, of course. They also collect it. If the watchmakers are smart, they’ll create feedback loops that learn from users and incorporate the best attention hacks and smartest defaults into future versions of software.

Today, Jawbone’s Up band learns what basketball feels like by noticing a particular pattern of movement, then asking users if they were playing basketball, crowdsourcing a better understanding of activities. Tomorrow’s smart watches can take that further: it’s not hard to imagine a smart wearable that listens for the sound of typing and a leveling of pulse, decides you’re in a flow state, changes music to encourage concentration, and suppresses notifications or even reschedules meetings.

Fixing interruption without technology

Do we need these systems? Or can we opt out?

Nat Torkington opines:

A world in which vendors actively work to throttle interruptions and win us free time may not be realistic. ‘Distracted’ may be an inherently self-inflicted state, like ‘busy.’ There’s no software or hardware that will make you less busy if your response to every invitation to spend your time is to say ‘yes.’ Similarly, there may be no software or hardware to make you less distracted if you see distractions as inherently positive: ‘Someone likes me! I learned something! My team is working!’

If more technology isn’t going to solve an interruption problem created by technology in the first place, then it’s up to us as people to do the management ourselves: timebox our activities and availability, manually disable and physically manage our digital interruptions, and embrace the interruptions when they do come. This ‘hack’ works, but it requires that you grant yourself agency: step out of the path of the firehose when you don’t want to drink from it.

Context is everything

Ultimately, this is all about context. The more a system knows about you, the better it works. If you’re concentrating intently or in the middle of a burst of productivity, then a good agent would require a far more urgent message to allow an interruption. Similarly, a talented musician doesn’t want their wrist buzzing when they’re in the middle of a piece, but a student might want guidance and feedback as they play.

We have plenty of unavoidable interruptions today that we appreciate. Peripheral vision and flinching means you don’t get hit in the head with a ball; pulling your arm away from a hot pan means you don’t get serious burns. Most people equate feedback from wearables with Facebook notifications or turn-by-turn directions; but done right, interruption won’t feel like I’m getting an SMS—it’ll feel like a natural extension of my brain, like reflexes that help me survive and navigate the world, like a personal coach.

With watches and wearables as the gatekeepers of our information, there’s a tremendous amount of promise and peril sitting on our wrists. Whether we fine-tune agents to handle information, or give them tremendous context so they can adapt to our circumstances, or opt out of information entirely, one thing is clear: how we handle information says much about who we are.

Thanks to Mike Loukides, Courtney Nash, Meghan Athavale, Nat Torkington, Simon St. Laurent, Marc Hedlund, Andy Oram, Roger Magoulas, and Jon Bruner for feedback on this post. Many of the good ideas here are theirs; I take full responsibility for quoting them out of context or choosing the wrong bits.

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