Everything is a fight for the users attention; not at least from the users themselves. As everything is becoming increasingly mobile, so our way of interacting with technology is being influenced by these new behavioural patterns. People use their cell phones/tablets/etc on the toilet, in waiting rooms or public transit and increasingly while doing other things that were previously regarded as entertainment by themselves; e.g. playing games on the cell phone while watching TV or tweeting from the talks of a conference.
According to Chris Atherton, a UI-designer with a phD in neuroscience, the user’s attention is finite. Every time the user switches context, e.g. from the t.v. to the phone, it has a cost. Every time a user focuses their attention on one thing, they immediately become less aware of other things; attention is finite.
As software designers we should take these behavioural patterns seriously. The expectations and habits being formed by the users of these mobile devices follow them into their interactions with supermarket checkout counters, work tools and even other people!
An easy, practical take away that will work for most types of software design is to assume your user is just tuning in and then evaluate what is the most important thing in her view right now? How much information can they reasonable take in? However it is important not to oversimplify; find out what it is necessary to be able to do and then do that – split it up if you have to.
Other easy attention-grabbers are color changes and moving objects. They capture attention quickly and sometime subtly. However a lot of things are competing for our user’s attention, including the users themselves.
Technology as an extension of ourselves
Atherton also briefly touched upon the amount of outsourcing people do, users are becoming used to relying on technology to ease the cognitive loads. People extend parts of their memory and bodily functions to technology. People expect their technology to help them.
I would have liked her to touch upon the dualism of technology that she presents here. Some times technology is a voluntary distraction and other times technology is an extension of the person; a person’s technical abilities. The distraction technology should be easily accessable and easily noticeable. The extension technology should be there when we need it. Mobile technology is an excellent source of at-hand distraction technology. And the increasing amount of interaction with these distraction technologies affect how we interact with extension-technologies. We should design for these new interaction patterns, even when desigining serious and critical software – perhaps especially when we’re designing critical software.