Viridian Note 00397: Attention Conservation
- Key concepts
- attention conservation, usability,
Jakob Nielsen, information pollution
- Attention Conservation Notice:
- Viridian List getting
a bit meta here with a note about attention conservation.
Also offers a lot of links to further prey on your time
and ability to concentrate.
Oil was more expensive in 2003 than it's been in 20 years.
It's 2004. The Euro's chasing all-time highs. People are buying gold, for heaven's sake.
Goodbye, "Washington Consensus." Hello, "Brasilia Consensus."
Another year, another extra USD5 billion in increasingly uninsurable weather disasters.
"Global Dimming." An atmospheric advent even weirder than the sudden stabilization of methane. Dunno what to make of this report, frankly. It scarcely bears contemplation.
The Jakob Nielsen Drinking Game.
- ACM Queue, "Tomorrow's Computing Today"
ACM Queue vol. 1, no. 8 - November 2003
"IM, Not IP (Information Pollution)"
by Jakob Nielsen, Nielsen Norman Group
"A steady dose of realtime interruptions is toxic to anyone's health. (((Preach it,
"Respected technology commentators say that they now prefer instant messaging (IM)
over e-mail as their medium of choice for computer-mediated communication.(1) The main
reasons are that e-mail has become an overloaded channel for readers and that you can't be
sure to get a timely response from the recipients of your e-mail.
"Yes, e-mail is suffering. Indeed, it's very close to the breaking point where it
will stop being useful, whether for personal communication or for company newsletters.
(((That would mean us Viridians, of course. Yes email is indeed breaking and yes we are
suffering for it.)))
"Here are some representative user comments from a recent study of e-mail
"'I used to be on more lists, but not now. When I was newer to the Web, I signed up for
a lot of stuff. But then I realized I couldn't keep up. It was more work to delete them
than any benefit I was getting reading them.'
"'It's the sort of thing I don't have time for. It would be good when I retire. Then
it's something I could look at daily. I'd be embarrassed to read it at work, but I don't
want to read e-mail on the weekends.'
"'I hate junk mail. My friend on Hotmail gets a lot more. I take it as a personal
assault, though I shouldn't.'
"'Once you get on, it seems like you can never really erase yourself.'
(((We don't hear a lot of such complaints here are Viridian, but we do get bounces from
most any number of spam-overloaded, abandoned mailboxes, these days.)))
"When a long-term employee who used to shoulder a heavy workload and be one of your
most valued contributors becomes sick, what do you do? Shoot the poor fellow? Usually, the
better answer is to see if there's a cure.
"I think we need to cure e-mail, not kill it. But it will surely die if left
"It is naive to believe that IM is the answer to the information overload that's
ailing e-mail. Continue current trends a few years and most people will get so much IM
that they will have to tune it out to get any work done. (((Exactly. Spam IM is
"IM is even worse than e-mail with respect to one of the most important human-factors
criteria: It's interruptive of task flow because it demands realtime attention. Some
things do need realtime attention, but even a one-minute interruption can easily cost a
knowledge worker 10 to 15 minutes of lost productivity due to the time needed to
reestablish mental context and reenter the flow state. That's why one of the best ways of
increasing the productivity of programmers is to give them individual offices. And that's
why no e-mail program should come with the biff feature turned on by default. (Biff is the
annoying ability to ring a bell or flash the screen every time an e-mail message arrives.
In fact, the world economy would gain several million dollars per year if this feature
were completely eradicated.)
(((I probably shouldn't mention that I am listening on broadband headphones to the
indescribable masala racket of "Indian Soca Reggae Hip Hop Elite Soundz Web Radio
Caribbean Spice-Solid Gold" as I try to type this.)))
"Our culture is hurting from information pollution everywhere we turn. The Internet
is the most severely afflicted ecosystem, with countless content-free Web pages
overflowing with either low-value stream-of-consciousness postings or bland 'corporatese.'
The physical world is not much better. (((An important point here. It's not exactly clear
to me why email is full of "information pollution" at the same time that our sky is so
polluted that "global dimming" is setting in, but those two things have just got to be
connected on some profound civilizational level.)))
"In the United States, for example, you can't buy a lawn mower without a label saying
that you're not supposed to mow your feet. Most instruction manuals are littered with
'important' warnings that caution against obvious stupidities, burying actual dangers amid
a mass of irrelevancy. (((Not a practice restricted to lawnmowers == found those Iraqi
"IM is one more toxic spill that's directing our attention to short-term minor issues
at the cost of procrastinating on important tasks that require more than a few minutes of
uninterrupted thinking. Any time-management consultant will tell you that the basics of
meeting your goals are to prioritize them and spend the most time on the most important
problems. To make real progress in creative thinking, problem solving, or other knowledge
work, we need to keep out interruptions and set our own agenda. IM, in contrast, lets your
agenda be controlled by anybody who has your screen name.
"Remember that a one-minute interruption costs you ten minutes of productivity. Only
very important instant messages are worth 1,000 percent in overhead costs.
"The Web is a junkyard. (((At last someone admits it! It's a Dead Media apotheosis!
Man, no wonder the coiner of the word "cyberspace" was William "Gomi-no-Sensei"
"E-mail is suffocating users. IM destroys productivity. What can we do about this?
(((Let's COMPLAIN! I'll help!)))
"I have my own suggested solution, which I call the Internet control panel.
(((Huh?))) This would be a single central base for monitoring and prioritizing all the
information a user is interested in. Do you want to keep track of your eBay auctions?
Instead of five e-mails per auction, all scattered throughout your inbox, you would have a
single flag in the control panel. Discussion groups? The control panel would show when hot
topics of interest to you are being discussed and would call attention to discussions with
contributions by writers you particularly respect. E-mail? Restricted to truly personal
communication. Newsletters, intranet status reports, and other nonletter communications
would be summarized and available for perusal on request. IM would have a small role, but
your personal agent would be very strict at screening incoming requests.
(((Where is the big red button one pushes to cause spammers to die?)))
"Whether or not you believe in my control panel, (((I'm glad we're offered a choice)))
the most important point is to change our ideology for computer-mediated communication.
The old thinking was that more information was better. If a unit of information were sent,
it would have to be transmitted and received at all costs. The new thinking must be that
human time is our most precious resource. Stop strip-mining it. (((Our Viridian
philosophy is triumphing in these words of wisdom here! Hurray for our five-year-old
attention conservation ideology!)))
"Traditional operating systems managed and scheduled computer resources. The next
generation of computers must protect users' time just as strictly as the most vigilant
executive secretary protects a CEO's calendar." (((Okay, sell me one, then.)))
1. Gillmor, D. Spamming sleazebags ruining e-mail. San Jose Mercury News (August 31, 2003); see
(((Odd that Gillmor gets it about the role of cunning human malice here while Nielsen
still thinks a control panel will make the problem go away.)))
2. Stover, A., and Nielsen, J. E-mail newsletter usability: 79 design guidelines for subscription, newsletter content and account maintenance based on usability studies. Nielsen Norman Group, Fremont, CA. 2002; see
"JAKOB NIELSEN is principal of Nielsen Norman Group, a user research company focused on making technology more suited to humans. He was previously a Sun Microsystems distinguished engineer and holds 71 U.S. patents on ways of improving Internet usability. Nielsen's books include Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity and Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed. His Web site is
O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O
EMAIL MAY BE BREAKING
BUT LADIES AND GENTLEMEN
WE ARE GOING TO FIGHT
THIS CULTURE WAR
DOWN TO THE LAST PIXEL!
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