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Interruption science

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Title: Interruption science  
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Interruption science

Interruption science is the "study of the effect of disruptions on job performance".[1] Office workers face a number of interruptions due to e-mail, phone calls, and visits from co-workers, all of which may be annoying and affect their productivity. For professions such as pilots or nurses, interruptions could have major consequences, as they could lead to costly or even life-threatening errors.


  • Interruptions arising from notifications 1
  • Categories of notifications 2
  • Notification system definition 3
  • Notifications as interruptions 4
    • Current plans disrupted 4.1
    • Impact of notifications at different points of task completion 4.2
  • Interruptions In Office Work 5
  • Interruptions to Pilots and Health care Professionals 6
  • Solutions to interruptions from notifications 7
    • Bounded deferral 7.1
    • E-mail solutions 7.2
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9

Interruptions arising from notifications

Notifications have become a constant presence in modern day life. We receive notifications from various sources, whether they be a message from a friend or a weather advisory. Often, notifications do not appear at optimal times and detract from other activities. In the office workplace, notifications may be particularly disruptive. Different context surrounding notifications determines their impact. As a result, research has been conducted to discover solutions for problems caused by notifications, while also keeping in mind the benefits they produce.

Categories of notifications

Notifications are alerts relating to emails, mobile devices such as cell phones and other PDAs. These notifications are dependent upon the technology associated with them and these sorts of notifications arise from the use of electronic devices. As group collaboration has increased significantly with groups that are not necessarily collocated, the dependence upon electronic devices has therefore increased causing the amount of notifications users get to increase as well.[2]:1 The increased dependence upon technology has led to these notifications becoming more frequent and, as a result, causing more interruptions in the work place. These devices can be configured in order to make a sound or vibrate in order to alert the user that they have new messages or to remind the user of a task that must be completed. Notifications either have set schedules or occur spontaneously due to various reasons, such as new emails and text messages. Because of the growing numbers of various electronic devices used, the amounts of notifications users receive grow exponentially. Different types of notifications are:

  • Text messaging (SMS)
  • Voice (telephone, cellphone, VoIP, outdoor loudspeaker, indoor PA system)
  • E-mail
  • Desktop alert (dialog, balloon, modal window, toast)
  • Pager messages
  • Instant messaging (IRC, ICQ, AIM, Yahoo! Messenger, MSN, XMPP, iMessage)
  • RSS (RSS reader, digital signage)
  • Web page (Javascript, XML)
  • Fax

Notification system definition

The purpose of notification systems is to deliver messages to a set of recipients. Notifications within the system each consist of information that is current and important,[3] and originate from a particular source consistent with the system. The need to repeatedly check a source for information is eliminated with a proactive system of notifications,[3] because the system does the "checking" action automatically. Using a notification system increases overall awareness and consists of visual, auditory, or haptic alerts.[3] Most notifications traditionally appear instantly [3] and require some cognitive attention to be successful in transmitting information.[4] Furthermore, notification systems are not designed to require complete attention, but are not necessarily successful in that goal.[4] In general, notification systems are used for making information widely available, for communicating, and for being aware of friends' activities.[4]

Notifications as interruptions

The question arises as to when notifications become interruptions to other tasks. An interruption, by definition, is a distraction that causes one to stop a scheduled task to respond to a stimulus.[5] Interruptions can cause serious task completion issues. According to the New York Times, interruptions cause employees in a workplace to change course completely after being distracted 40 percent of the time. Workers cannot remember what they were doing before the distraction.[6] :3 Answering notifications hurts task performance and the ability to resume to the original task at hand.[7] :27 However, the general consensus among workers is that the increased situational awareness created by having the interruptions is worth the decrease in concentration.[7] :27 The forced absence of email notifications, in a study, helped some workers concentrate, but others felt the constant need to check their email accounts.[7] :27 Without notifications, people often spend more time checking their email overall than they did with notifications, due to the lack of constant awareness.[7] :29 The absence of e-mail notifications is often seen as counterproductive because of the required "catch-up" time periods after a long time between email checking.[7] :30 E-mail notifications appear with a brief summary message, and are not as distracting as they are perceived to be because employees in a workplace customarily glance at most e-mail notifications with passive awareness, if they are not important.[7] :28 Email notifications do become very distracting when they are set to appear instantly or every five minutes.[5] Email notifications are not as distracting as they are often thought to be, but still do cause issues while working. In general, not all notifications have the same effect, either because of the variety of people who receive the notification or the properties of the notification. Some workers have the ability to multitask more than others, and do not feel that using notifications hurts their work progress.[7] :29–30 Auditory notifications have varying levels of distractedness based on the voice providing the notification. The most disruptive auditory alerts are found to be when one's own voice is heard, followed by a familiar voice, followed then by an unfamiliar voice as the least distracting.[8] :6 A visual graphic has been found to be less distracting than auditory and written alerts.[6] :2 Notifications have varying effects on a worker's concentration.

Current plans disrupted

Notifications may be relevant to the task that the worker is currently completing or not. When a notification is relevant to the current task and may even help with the task, the notification is less disruptive than if it were unrelated.[9] :99 Additionally, if the notification is relevant to an employee's job and the project he or she is working on is also part of his or her job, the interruption is not distracting from the general category of work.[6] :1 Overall task performance is most impacted when an instant message is received during fast and stimulus-driven tasks such as typing, pressing buttons, or examining search results.[10] :263,265,268 Moreover, there is debate over the impact of task type on ease of interruption. One study claims that cognitive tasks are less easily interrupted by message notifications than list evaluation tasks. A study showed that people take longer to respond to a notification when working on a cognitive task, such as evaluating search results based on an idea, than an evaluating for an exact response.[10] :267 The reason for this finding may be that cognitive tasks already hold one's focus, and that focus is not easily lost by a notification. On the other hand, a comprehensive book explains that the more in-depth the context of a task is when interrupted, the more detrimental the notification.[11] :39 The potential impact of a notification is determined, in part, by the task it is interrupting.

Impact of notifications at different points of task completion

Notifications that appear early in the completion of a task have more of a disruption effect than do interruptions late in the completion of a task. This fact has been attributed to workers being less rehearsed in a task at the out start, rather than later on in the project timeline.[10] :267–268 The worker has not had the chance to become invested [6] :4 in the beginning of a project, and is easily distracted. However, when notifications occur at breakpoints, breakpoints being transitions between two sections of a task, instead of during busy moments, there is less frustration and time spent avoiding the notification.[9] :93–94 Notifications have more of an impact at certain point of progress within task completion than at others.

Interruptions In Office Work

Some office workers use so many computer programs at once that they have to use two screens.

According to Gloria Mark, a leader in interruption science, the average knowledge worker switches tasks every three minutes, and, once distracted, a worker takes nearly a half-hour to resume the original task”.[12]

Gloria Mark conducted a study on office workers, which revealed that "each employee spent only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted" and that it took, "on average, 25 minutes to return" to their initial task.[13] At the same time, Mark's study indicated that constant e-mail interruptions are also an important source of information for office workers.[13]

A study indicates that "employers seeking to decrease interruptions may want to have their workers use instant messaging software". The study showed that "workers who used instant messaging on the job reported less interruption than colleagues who did not". Even though "using instant messaging led to more conversations on the computer...the conversations were briefer".[14]

Interruptions to Pilots and Health care Professionals

Pilots are surrounded by gauges, meters, lights and switches and they get voice messages both in person, from members of their flight crew, and on their radios, from air traffic controllers.
When surgeons are performing operations, interruptions or distractions can have serious negative consequences.

For professions such as pilots,[15] astronauts, or surgeons in the operating room, interruptions at the wrong time could even have major consequences. Mary Czerwinski, "one of the world's leading experts in interruption science" helps "NASA design the information systems for the International Space Station". She has to try to figure out how to "deliver an interruption to a busy astronaut" regarding mechanical errors without being "too distracting, [because] it could throw off the astronauts and cause them to mess up million-dollar experiments".[13]

In nursing, a study has been conducted of the impact of interruptions on nurses in a trauma center.[16] Another study has been done on the interruption rates of nurses and doctors.[17]

Interruption caused by smartphone use in health-care settings can be deadly. Hence, it may be worthwhile for health care organizations to craft effective cellphone usage policies to maximize technological benefits and minimize unnecessary distraction associated with smart phone use.[18]

Solutions to interruptions from notifications

Because of the rapid increase in the use of technology, the number of interruptions that have been caused by notifications has increased, as well. Since users have placed a heavy reliance upon technology, users face notification overload, or the challenge of keeping up to date on incoming information alerts.[19]:1 These notifications have been proven to affect the productivity of the receivers. Measures have been put into place to try and reduce the interruptions of the people who receive them. In order to reduce the negative effects of receiving constant notifications while working, applications have been developed that attempt to reduce the distractions caused by numerous notifications. The applications in development use a variety of methods to either try and classify notifications by their importance or to deliver notifications when there is an identified break from work.[20] These applications try and allow the delivery of notifications to be least harmful in order to allow productivity to remain unaffected by the delivery of such alerts.

Because a notification is generally presented in the same format for all messages, messages that do not have high reminders for tasks that must be completed.[19]:9 The purpose of these types of software is to effectively reduce the interruptions caused by electronic devices and to ensure that interruptions become more beneficial than harmful. They aim to allow users to effectively integrate notifications into their workload without the loss of productivity that is usually associated with receiving notifications. These programs are developed through the monitoring of emails, phone calls, and text messages. The data obtained is then used to decide whether or not the user is involved in a process that will be negatively affected by receiving a notification. These programs have been deemed effective in numerous work places, as they have minimized the loss of production that users experience when receiving notifications. Although there will continue to be an increase in the amount of notifications users receive as more technology is used in work spaces, the use of applications such as "Oasis" and "Scope" will limit the interruptions user experience and reduce a loss of productivity.

Bounded deferral

Bounded deferral is a restricted notification method that entails users waiting a prescribed amount of time before they access a notification to reduce the amount of interruption and decline in productivity. This technique was used in the aim to provide calmer and less disruptive work spaces.[21]:1 If users are busy, alerts and notifications are put aside and delivered only when users are in a position to receive notifications without harming their work. The bounded deferral method has proven to be useful and has the potential to become even more effective on a wider scale, as it has showed how an effective notification system can operate.

E-mail solutions

Researchers encourage people to try to limit their e-mail use via

  • Gillie T. & Broadbent D. (1989) What makes interruptions disruptive? A study of length, similarity and complexity, Psychological Research, 50 (4), 243-250
  • Edwards M. B. & Gronlund S. D. (1998) Task interruption and its effects on memory, Memory, 6 (6), 665-687
  • Botvinick M. M. & Bylsma L. M. (2005) Distraction and action slips in an everyday task: Evidence for a dynamic representation of task context, Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 12 (6), 1011–1017
  • Arroyo E. & Selker T. (2003) Arbitrating multimodal outputs: Using ambient displays as interruptions, in: J. Jacko & C. Stephanidis (Eds.) Human-Computer Interaction: Theory and Practice (Part II) - Proceedings of HCI International 2003, Vol. 2, Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 591-595
  • Andrews P. (2004) Vying for your attention: Interruption management, Executive Technology Report, 7, 1-8
  • Altmann E. M. & Trafton J. G. (2007) Timecourse of recovery from task interruption: Data and a model, Psychonomic Bullletin & Review, 14 (6), 1079–1084
  • Adamczyk P. D. & Bailey B. P. (2004) If not now, when?: The effects of interruption at different moments within task execution, in: Human Factors in Computing Systems: Proceedings of CHI'04, New York: ACM Press, 271-278

Further reading

  1. ^ Interruption Science': Costly Distractions at Work October 14, 2005 Accessed on June 18, 2011
  2. ^ Carroll, John M. "Notification and awareness: synchronizing task-oriented collaborative activity". International Journal of Human-Computer Studies. Retrieved 16 October 2012. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Iqbal, Shamsi T. "Oasis: A Framework for Linking Notification Delivery to the Perceptual Structure of Goal-Directed Tasks". Microsoft Research. Microsoft. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  4. ^ a b c McCrickard, D. Scott; Czerwinski, Bartram (May 2003). "Introduction: Design and evaluation of notification user interfaces.". International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 58 (5): 6.  
  5. ^ a b c d Jackson, Thomas; Dawson, Wilson (April 2002). "Case study: evaluating the effect of email interruptions within the workplace". Conference on Empirical Assessment in Software Engineering: 3–7. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  6. ^ a b c d Thompson, Clive (16 October 2005). "Meet the Life Hackers". New York Times. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Iqbal, Shamsi T.; Horvitz (2010). "Notifications and Awareness: A Field Study of Alert Usage and Preferences". Proceedings of the 2010 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work: 27–30.  
  8. ^ Bhatia, S; McCrickard (2006). "Listening to your inner voices: Investigating means for voice notifications". Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  9. ^ a b Iqbal, Shamsi T; Bailey (2008). "Effects of Intelligent Notification Management on Users and Their Tasks". Proceeding of the Twenty-Sixth Annual SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, CHI'08: 93–102. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  10. ^ a b c Cutrell, Edward; Czerwinski, Horvitz (2001). "Notification, Disruption, and Memory: Effects of Messaging Interruptions on Memory and Performance". INTERACT 2001 Conference Proceedings: 263–269. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  11. ^ Roda, Claudia (2011). Human attention and its implications for human–computer interaction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 11–62. 
  12. ^ Alboher, Marci (22 June 2008). "Fighting a War Against Distraction".  
  13. ^ a b c  
  14. ^ "Instant Messaging Proves Useful In Reducing Workplace Interruption", ScienceDaily (June 4, 2008)
  15. ^ Damos D. L. & Tabachnick B. G. (2001) The Effect of Interruptions on Flight Crew Performance: ASRS Reports, Los Angeles: Damos Research Associates
  16. ^ Brixey J. J., Robinson D. J., Tang Z., Johnson T. R., Zhang J. & Turley J. P. (2005) "Interruptions in Workflow for RNs in a Level-One Trauma Center", in: AMIA 2005 Annual Symposium Proceedings, Bethesda, MD: American Medical Informatics Association, 86-90
  17. ^ Paxton F., Heaney D. J., Howie J. G. & Porter A. M. (1996), "A study of interruption rates for practice nurses and GPs", Nursing Standard 10 (43), 33-36.
  18. ^ Gill, P.S.; Kamath, A.; Gill, T.S. (2012). "Distraction: an assessment of smartphone usage in health care work settings". Risk Management and Healthcare Policy 5: 105–114.  
  19. ^ a b van Dantzich, Maarten. "Scope: Providing Awareness of Multiple Notifications at a Glance". 
  20. ^ Cutrell, Edward. "Notification, Disruption, and Memory: Effects of Messaging Interruptions on Memory and Performance". Microsoft Research. Retrieved 15 October 2012. 
  21. ^ Horvitz, Eric. "Balancing Awareness and Interruption: Investigation of Notification Deferral Policies". Microsoft Research. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 



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