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Interruption science is the "study of the effect of disruptions on job performance". Office workers face a number of interruptions due to e-mail, text messages, phone calls, and visits from co-workers, all of which may cause them to lose focus and affect their productivity. For professions such as pilots, surgeons or nurses, interruptions could have major consequences, as they could lead to costly or even life-threatening errors.
- 1 Notifications
- 2 Notification system definition
- 3 Notifications as interruptions
- 4 Interruptions In office work
- 5 Interruptions to pilots and health care professionals
- 6 Solutions to interruptions from notifications
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
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 contexts 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 that notifications provide (e.g., alerting you to a meeting that will be held soon).
Notifications are alerts relating to e-mails, 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.:1 The increased dependence upon technology has led to these notifications becoming more frequent and, as a result, causing more interruptions in the workplace. 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 tend to grow.
Different types of notifications are:
- Text messaging (SMS)
- Voice (telephone, cellphone, VoIP, outdoor loudspeaker, indoor PA system, human co-worker)
- Desktop alert (dialog, balloon, modal window, Workpace Software)
- Pager messages
- Instant messaging (IRC, ICQ, AIM, Yahoo! Messenger, MSN, XMPP, iMessage)
- RSS (RSS reader, digital signage)
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, 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, because the system does the "checking" action automatically. Using a notification system increases overall awareness and consists of visual, auditory, or haptic alerts. Most notifications traditionally appear instantly  and require some cognitive attention to be successful in transmitting information. Furthermore, notification systems are not designed to require complete attention, but are not necessarily successful in that goal. In general, notification systems are used for making information widely available, for communicating, and for being aware of friends' activities.
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. 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. :3 Answering notifications hurts task performance and the ability to resume to the original task at hand. :27 In addition, even just knowing that one has received a notification can negatively impact sustained attention.
However, the general consensus among workers is that the increased situational awareness created by having the interruptions is worth the decrease in concentration. :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. :27 Without notifications, people often spend more time checking their email overall than they did with notifications, due to the lack of constant awareness. :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. :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. :28 Email notifications do become very distracting when they are set to appear instantly or every five minutes. 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. :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. :6 A visual graphic has been found to be less distracting than auditory and written alerts. :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. :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. :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. :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. :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. :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. :267–268 The worker has not had the chance to become invested  :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. :93–94 Notifications have more of an impact at certain point of progress within task completion than at others.
Interruptions In office work
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”. 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. At the same time, Mark's study indicated that constant e-mail interruptions are also an important source of information for office workers.
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". Zador Daniel Kelemen shows how a team of programmers is interrupted through a technical Skype support chat and interrupts can be reduced by introducing a dispatcher role and a knowledge base.
Interruptions to pilots and health care professionals
For professions such as pilots, 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".
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.
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.: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. 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 importance cause unnecessary interruptions with harmful effects on the receiver. Software, such as Oasis, have been developed to filter messages and classify them by priority level.:1This software makes users aware of the importance of their email alerts or other messages, as well as which messages are most time-sensitive. Oasis compiles notifications from various sources in order to reduce the amount of time spent scanning external locations. A program called "Scope" is a visual notification organization system that sorts emails into different categories, has reminders for meetings, and has reminders for tasks that must be completed.: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 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.: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.
Researchers encourage people to try to limit their e-mail use via dialogue boxes, sound alerts, and the frequency at which they are alerted about new e-mail.:3 Employees in a workplace are discouraged from using the reply-all feature to prevent unnecessary distractions to peers who will find not find the e-mail useful. Users are urged to avoid reply-all because when the reply-all feature is used, the response is likely to only be beneficial for a few recipients. One method that users can utilize to reduce the interruptions of e-mails is to configure the e-mail application to give concise summaries of each e-mail received, including the sender, the subject, and a few lines of the message. This allows users to acknowledge whether or not they have to give immediate action to their e-mails and allows them to forgo wasting time reading it. Another method is to configure the email application to check for new e-mails no more frequently than 45 minutes to allow workers to remain productive for prolonged periods of time. Teaching people within an organization to effectively use e-mail and how to prioritize should be used to reduce the interruptions caused by notification.:7
- Interruption Science': Costly Distractions at Work, October 14, 2005 http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4958831 Accessed on June 18, 2011
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