Interruptions : Introduction to the theme


Interruptions are invitations for change; they have the potential to carry valuable information that can enable people to successfully coordinate activities in highly dynamic, real-world environments. This coordination responsibility is common in many different types of work domains, so interruptions have the potential for a large positive impact on work success. Many organizations, therefore, purposefully introduce technologies into their workplace that deliver dynamic information and increase the frequency of interruptions. They hypothesize that increasing interruption frequency can increase the volume of useful information available about dynamic activities and consequently improve people's coordination performance.

Realizing this potential improvement in performance, however, has shown to be extremely difficult. The utility of the information carried by interruptions is relative to whether it is relevant to the dynamically changing work focus. As a result, most interruptions are not useful in practice. Powerful human-computer interaction (HCI) design techniques are required to realize the potential performance gains and enable people to easily get the information they need and ignore the information they do not. One difficult design aspect is that although people have some powerful innate talents for multitasking, their attention is vulnerable to distraction in many subtle ways. This can make it difficult for them to find what is important within large volumes of the unimportant.

Literature about human interruption addresses this design problem from the following different perspectives: (1) psychology of human interruption; (2) technologies for improving the quality of interruption generation; (3) HCI methods for brokering interruptions; (4) the effects of interruptions in work settings; and (5) case studies describing the results of introducing technologies into the workplace in an attempt to improve coordination performance.

Daniel C. McFarlane, Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Laboratories, April 4, 2005

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