If you’re involved in the design community or have even just read some design writing, you probably have encountered the concept of “Flow” or “Deep Work”, it’s this magical state of mind where you have complete focus on a task and become as productive as possible.
Sadly, achieving a state of flow isn’t very easy, it requires work that is suited to you and an environment that is just right, particularly one that is devoid of distractions and interruptions. Which brings me to the topic of discussion; interruptions.
I think we can all relate to this scenario; You’ve just settled down for a day of work when suddenly you hear your phone buzz. The game you installed last night is yelling at you to tell you that it’s “lonely” and needs you to play, frustrated you set your phone down, for the cycle to repeat.
Equally problematic are design systems that spam users with a continuous stream of distractions. For example, this week I’ve been sent 5 emails by Skillshare for class recommendations. While I appreciate the service they provide, I clearly don’t have enough time in my life to complete all these classes. The piling of this content into my inbox turns what would be a helpful tool into something I loathe.
“Almost all accidents take place because of human distraction” — Sebastian Thrun
So, How do we solve these problems?
Urgency of Information
The first thing to consider is whether or not the information you are sending is even worth interrupting someone for. Your Coworker won’t run up to you if you are swamped with work to tell you about their weekend because they understand in the context of the environment that the work you are completing holds a greater importance to you than their weekend. You might argue, “Digital products don’t have this same context! I don’t want my devices spying on me so that they can.” In response I would say, you’re completely right, we shouldn’t give up our privacy for better notifications, so we should try to avoid sharing useless information in most contexts. Low urgency information can be notified to the user when they are using the product, for example, I would prefer that twitter only notifies me of the activity of those I’m following when I’m using twitter but sadly, that isn’t an option.
“A Tamagotchi is a beep encased in a plastic shell. It exists to haunt you with ghostly notifications that signify nothing.” — Sarah Jeong
Consider Deliver Method
Different mediums of delivery produce various different levels of distraction and interruption, your home smoke alarm should hopefully be very good at grabbing your attention because the information is of high importance. In contrast, your tv may use a small led light to indicate that it is on standby. Considering how we deliver information to users is vital when it comes to providing it in a way that doesn’t negatively affect their experience. It’s all too common that our products deliver information in a way that conveys more urgency than deserved in an attempt to drive engagement, leading to frustration for the user and eventually a negative experience.
“There cannot be greater rudeness than to interrupt another in the current of his discourse.” — John Locke
Adapting to the user and their behaviour
Today, many of the products and services we use to tailor our notifications to our recent activity and how we interact with the product or service. We can apply this same energy to providing interruptions that are tailored to a positive experience by avoiding irritating alerts and understanding when content begins to overwhelm the individual. If for example, A service can clearly see that I am not engaging with the flurry of emails they send me on a regular basis, perhaps it’s time to try a different approach to grab my attention. Through interruptions that adapt to user behaviour, companies and users can both benefit through the delivery of interruptions that maintain a positive user experience by avoiding irritation, while also maximising engagement by providing interruptions when users are most willing to engage.
Putting power into the hands of the user by giving them the opportunity to customise how they experience a product through notifications is something we don’t see enough of. Twitter does an excellent job of this allowing users to mute notifications from certain categories of users such as muting notifications from users that you don’t already follow. Tools like these become increasingly more important as you build larger audiences on platforms, imagine what it would be like to be a celebrity without these tools. Encouraging the implementation of products such as these could be incredible for productivity and mental health, an example would be the ability to schedule the muting of notifications during work hours and late at night.