Interruption science

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Interruption science is the interdisciplinarity scientific study concerned with how interruptions effect human performance, and the development interventions to ameliorate the disruption caused by interruptions. Interruption science is branch of human factors psychology and emerged from human–computer interaction and cognitive psychology.

Being ubiquitous in life and an intuitive concept, there are few formal definitions of interruption. A commonly agreed upon definition proposed by Boehm-Davis and Remington specifies an interruption is “the suspension of one stream of work prior to completion, with the intent of returning to and completing the original stream of work”.[1] Interruptions are considered to be on the spectrum of multitasking and in this context referred to as sequential multitasking.[2] The distinguishing feature of an interruption (c.f., task-switching, concurrent multitasking) is the presence of primary task which must be returned to upon completing a secondary interrupting task.[2] For instance, talking on the phone whilst driving generally is considered an instance of concurrent multitasking; whilst stopping a data entry task to check emails would be considered an instance of an interruption.

Interruptions, in almost all instances, are disruptive to performance and induce errors.[3] Therefore, interruption science typically examines the effects of interruptions in high-risk workplace environments such as aviation,[4] medicine,[5] and vehicle operation[6] in which human error can have serious, potentially disastrous consequences. Interruptions are also explored in less-safety critical workplaces, such as offices, where interruptions can induce stress,[7] anxiety,[8] and poorer performance.[9]


The first formal investigation into interruptions was conducted by Zeigarnik and Ovsiankina as part of the Vygotsky Circle in the 1920s. Their seminary research demonstrated the Zeigarnik effect: people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. In the 1940s, Fitts and Jones reported that interruptions were a cause of pilot errors and flying accidents, and made recommendations on reducing these disruptive effects.[10]

Theoretical Models[edit]

Knowledge Workers[edit]

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

Office workers face a number of interruptions due to information technologies such as e-mail, text messages, and phone calls. One line ofresearch in interruption science examines the disruptive effects of these technologies and how to improve the usability and design of such devices. According to Gloria Mark, the average knowledge worker switches tasks every three minutes, and, once distracted, a worker can take nearly a half-hour to resume the original task”.[11] Mark conducted a study on office workers, which revealed that "each employee spent only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted".[12]


One of the major challenges associated with increased reliance on information technologies is they will send users' notifications, without considering current task demands. Answering notifications impedes task performance and the ability to resume to the original task at hand.[13] In addition, even just knowing that one has received a notification can negatively impact sustained attention.[14]

Several solutions have been proposed to this problem. One study suggested entirely disable email notifications. The down side was it may induce a pressure to constant need to check their email accounts.[13] :27 In fact, entirely removing notifications may lead people to spend more time checking their email [13] :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.[13] :30 Alternatively, there are several attempts to design software applications that deliver notifications when there is an identified break from work,[15] or categorize notifications based on their relative importance (e.g. Oasis).

Research has also investigated the effects of relevant interruptions, and found notifications relevant to the current task are less disruptive than if it were unrelated.[16] :99 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.[17] :263,265,268

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.[18]: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.


For a surgeon, interruption during an operation could have serious consequences. Yet in some cases, a surgeon may need to be interrupted to make him or her aware of new issues arising with the patient.

In nursing, a study has been conducted of the impact of interruptions on nurses in a trauma center.[19] Another study has been done on the interruption rates of nurses and doctors.[20]

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.[21]


  1. ^ Boehm-Davis, Deborah A.; Remington, Roger (September 2009). "Reducing the disruptive effects of interruption: A cognitive framework for analysing the costs and benefits of intervention strategies". Accident Analysis & Prevention 41 (5): 1124–1129. doi:10.1016/j.aap.2009.06.029. 
  2. ^ a b Taatgen, Dario D. Salvucci, Niels A. (2011). The multitasking mind. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0199733562. 
  3. ^ Trafton, Gregory J.; Monk, Christopher A. (1 March 2007). "Task Interruptions". Reviews of Human Factors and Ergonomics 3 (1): 111–126. doi:10.1518/155723408X299852. 
  4. ^ Latorella, K. A. (1 October 1998). "Effects of Modality on Interrupted Flight Deck Performance: Implications for Data Link". Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting 42 (1): 87–91. doi:10.1177/154193129804200120. 
  5. ^ Sanderson, Penelope M.; Grundgeiger, Tobias (July 2015). "How do interruptions affect clinician performance in healthcare? Negotiating fidelity, control, and potential generalizability in the search for answers". International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 79: 85–96. doi:10.1016/j.ijhcs.2014.11.003. 
  6. ^ . doi:10.1145/2702123.2702409.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  7. ^ Gloria Mark, Daniela Gudith, Ulrich Klocke (2008). "The cost of interrupted work: more speed and stress". CHI '08 Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. pp. 107–110. 
  8. ^ Bailey, Brian P.; Konstan, Joseph A. (July 2006). "On the need for attention-aware systems: Measuring effects of interruption on task performance, error rate, and affective state". Computers in Human Behavior 22 (4): 685–708. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2005.12.009. 
  9. ^ Cades, D. M.; Werner, N. E.; Boehm-Davis, D. A.; Arshad, Z. (1 September 2010). "What makes Real-World Interruptions Disruptive? Evidence from an Office Setting". Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting 54 (4): 448–452. doi:10.1177/154193121005400437. 
  10. ^ Gillie, Tony; Broadbent, Donald (April 1989). "What makes interruptions disruptive? A study of length, similarity, and complexity". Psychological Research 50 (4): 243–250. doi:10.1007/BF00309260. 
  11. ^ Alboher, Marci (22 June 2008). "Fighting a War Against Distraction". New York Times. 
  12. ^ Thompson, Clive (16 October 2005). "Meet the Life Hackers". New York Times. 
  13. ^ a b c d 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. doi:10.1145/1718918.1718926. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  14. ^ Stothart, C; Mitchum, A; Yehnert, C (29 June 2015). "The Attentional Cost of Receiving a Cell Phone Notification.". Journal of experimental psychology. Human perception and performance. doi:10.1037/xhp0000100. PMID 26121498. 
  15. ^ Cutrell, Edward. "Notification, Disruption, and Memory: Effects of Messaging Interruptions on Memory and Performance" (PDF). Microsoft Research. Retrieved 15 October 2012. 
  16. ^ 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. 
  17. ^ Cutrell, Edward; Czerwinski, Horvitz (2001). "Notification, Disruption, and Memory: Effects of Messaging Interruptions on Memory and Performance" (PDF). INTERACT 2001 Conference Proceedings: 263–269. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  18. ^ Horvitz, Eric. "Balancing Awareness and Interruption: Investigation of Notification Deferral Policies" (PDF). Microsoft Research. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  19. ^ 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
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ 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. doi:10.2147/RMHP.S34813. 

Further reading[edit]

  • 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
  • Altmann E. M. & Trafton J. G. (2007) Timecourse of recovery from task interruption: Data and a model, Psychonomic Bullletin & Review, 14 (6), 1079–1084
  • Altmann, E. M., & Trafton, J. G. (2002). Memory for goals: An activation-based model. Cognitive Science, 26(1), 39–83.
  • Bailey, B. P., Konstan, J. a, & Carlis, J. V. (2001). The Effects of Interruptions on Task Performance, Annoyance, and Anxiety in the User Interface. Proceedings of INTERACT ’01, 593–601.
  • Cades, D. M., Davis, D. A. B., Trafton, J. G., & Monk, C. A. (2007). Does the difficulty of an interruption affect our ability to resume? In Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting (Vol. 51, pp. 234–238). SAGE Publications.
  • Edwards, M. B., & Gronlund, S. D. (1998). Task interruption and its effects on memory. Memory (Hove, England), 6(6), 665–687.
  • Gillie, T., & Broadbent, D. (1989). What makes interruptions disruptive? A study of length, similarity, and complexity. Psychological Research, 50(4), 243–250.
  • Gould, S. J. J., Brumby, D. P., & Cox, A. L. (2013). What does it mean for an interruption to be relevant? An investigation of relevance as a memory effect. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, 57(1), 149–153.
  • Grundgeiger, T., Sanderson, P., MacDougall, H. G., & Venkatesh, B. (2010). Interruption Management in the Intensive Care Unit: Predicting Resumption Times and Assessing Distributed Support. Journal of Experimental Psychology-Applied, 16(4), 317–334. 10.1037/A0021912
  • Janssen, C. P., Gould, S. J. J., Li, S. Y. W., Brumby, D. P., & Cox, A. L. (2015). Integrating knowledge of multitasking and Interruptions across different Perspectives and research methods. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 79, 1–5.
  • Latorella, K. A. (1999). Investigating interruptions: Implications for flight deck performance (Technical Memorandum NASA/TM-1999-209707), (October).
  • Monk, C. A., Trafton, J. G., & Boehm-Davis, D. A. (2008). The effect of interruption duration and demand on resuming suspended goals. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 14(4), 299.
  • Ratwani, R. M., Trafton, J. G., & Myers, C. (2006). Helpful or harmful? Examining the effects of interruptions on task performance. In Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting (Vol. 50, pp. 372–375). Sage Publications.
  • Remington, R. W., & Loft, S. (2015). Attention and multitasking. APA Handbook of Human Systems Integration., (1918), 261–276.
  • Salvucci, D. D., & Taatgen, N. A. (2011). The multitasking mind. Oxford series on cognitive models and architectures. Retrieved from\n\nhttp://fir
  • Sanderson, P. M., & Grundgeiger, T. (2015). How do interruptions affect clinician performance in healthcare? Negotiating fidelity, control, and potential generalizability in the search for answers. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 79, 85–96.
  • Sasangohar, F., Scott, S. D., & Donmez, B. (2013). Interruption Management and Recovery in Time-critical Supervisory-level Tasks A Literature Review. In Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting (Vol. 57, pp. 1745–1749). SAGE Publications.
  • Trafton, J. G., & Monk, C. a. (2007). Task interruptions. Reviews of Human Factors and Ergonomics, 3(1), 111–126.