at last night's #microformats 7th celebration, @willnorris and I came up with "POSSE" as an #indieweb approach: Publish Own Site, Syndicate Everywhere (or Elsewhere). It's a bit awkward, but we think it improves on "POSE" - Publish Once Syndicate Everywhere. In particular, POSSE's use of "own site" while connecting with your "posse" as it were, is really what the #indieweb is about.
Interface elements either help the user experience, or hurt it. A redesign should consider possible features and choose a minimal set justified by essential use-cases. — Focus Enabling Design
Where the previous post was a narrative, this is a minimal summary and step-by-step.
Every interface element of a focus enabling design helps the user do one of these:
do a quick action
add to current activity
refocus on an
a higher priority activity
and must avoid both of these:
switching among similar priority activities
refocusing on a lower priority activity
Question Every Interface Element
When (re)designing for focus, start with questioning every interface element.
Does this interface element encourage focus?
There are two important aspects of focus:
staying focused on an activity in a productive state of flow - focusing on one cognitive task at a time until completed is more productive than switching back and forth
having the right focus - if there's an emergency or a higher priority activity, it's more important to switch to it
There are two ways an interface element can help a user stay focused:
do a quick action - does the element allow the user to quickly collect or handle something and return to the current activity without breaking flow?
add to current activity - does the element help the user with their current activity?
There are also two exceptions where encouraging the user to change focus is worth the cost of context switching:
emergency - does the element notify/alert the user of an emergency and/or allow them to take action on it?
a higher priority activity - does the element remind the user of another existing higher priority activity, or encourage starting a new higher priority activity?
If an interface element does one of those above four, keep it.
Or does this interface element distract the user?
There are also two ways that interface elements typically distract users, specifically by encouraging them to:
switch among similar or lower priority activities - thereby suffering from context switching time and mental fatigue costs, hurting overall productivity
refocus on a lower priority activity - anything that encourages you to switch your attention to a lower priority activity (whether existing or new) is hurting your sense of will. It's a priority inversion.
If an interface element encourages either of those, it is a source of distraction. Drop it.
Try that out and let me know how it works for you.
All these action examples do share a common aspect: they're things you can quickly do and get back to whatever activity you were doing with minimal context switching and hopefully without getting distracted.
That common aspect for actions are what distinguishes them from activities, which brings me to my second set of permalink/citation interface use cases.
The two general activities where I seem to use permalinks and/or web citations the most are reading (e.g. one referenced article after another) and writing. In this context writing encompasses a broad set of specific long form authoring and content editing: writing or adding to email/post drafts, wiki pages, event organization pages, project plans, or any other kind of topic or goal focused documents.
If I'm researching a topic for a blog post and find a relevant source, then citing a permalink to that source is actively part of my current activity.
Sometimes I'll be reading an article and it will mention something worth quoting or citing in some other draft or post in progress.
Finally, an article might have sufficiently new and significant information to motivate me to start writing a new post, wiki page, etc.
GTD, Focus, And Flow
It struck me that perhaps it would be useful to evaluate and rank each of these (quick action, current/other/new activity) within the context of Gettings Thing Done (GTD) methodology, and more broadly, how they impact focus and productivity flow. I used a few simple criteria:
staying focused on the same activity is good: focus is an ends in itself
handling interruptions without breaking flow is good
context switching to a new (unfamiliar) activity is costlier than switching to another activity:
"They got "up to speed" faster when they switched to tasks they knew better, an observation that may lead to interfaces designed to help overcome people's innate cognitive limitations." ibid.
Using those criteria to evaluate the clusters of use cases:
ok if done under a minute, or instead (preferably?) collected to an inbox per GTD, thereby keeping a sense of flow
add to current activity
good, e.g. if part of (re)searching a topic. If the user did arrive via a search engine, especially with a specific search term, show links to topically related posts.
context switch to another activity
likely bad, it's defocusing, and context switches hurt productivity overall.
might be ok or even good if it's a switch to a higher priority context/activity/project. Anything that helps reinforce your own prioritization is a form of empowerment or at least encouragement.
bad in general. Anything that provokes a new activity is always defocusing, and mentally costlier than an existing activity.
except for emergencies. The only kind of new activity that's worth losing your focus for is an emergency, something that is realtime sensitive (inaction resulting in damage/loss).
I found it amazing to see a whole spectrum from good to bad in a list derived just from a few citation interface use cases. It made me wonder if this analysis might be scratching the surface of a larger problem.
Constant interruption is just one form of the interfaces of distraction that encourage us to click around, perhaps to maximize page views (e.g. any news site with popular article lists), or worse, train us with intermittent reinforcement to habitually seek out distraction.
We're surrounded by this behavior: people on their smart-devices checking sites/apps for activity, and repeatedly clicking red/bold new messages numbers just in case someone they care about said or did something on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, email. Even popular articles lists might work like that - maybe the next article you read will be entertaining and/or relevant, maybe not. Better keep clicking, just in case.
We don't need the machines to build The Matrix to distract and pre-occupy us, we've already done it to ourselves.
Once you start to realize just how much of how many of the interfaces we use every day are designed for distraction, the problem can seem overwhelming.
Paper books and notepads start to look really attractive.
Focus Enabling Interfaces
Choosing tools that encourage focus is a necessary first step. We must do better: build focus enabling tools as well.
Using techniques like the GTD/focus/flow analysis above, it may be possible to deliberately design for focus, that is, build interfaces of focus, or focus enabling interfaces, simply by prioritizing more focus enabling use cases.
Nevermind the misalignment of incentives for companies to build interfaces of distraction (more page/ad views, time on site etc.) rather than focus, I want to build focus enabling interfaces for myself, for the Indie Web, and for anyone reading my site, because doing so benefits all of us.
Prioritizing Focus Enabling Use Cases
Starting from the permalink/citation use cases and sorting them by effect on productivity/focus, here's an ordered subset to consider for more focus enabling designs:
critical: new emergency activity
good: add to current activity - helps focus
ok: quick action / collection -> return to current activity
good but risky: context switch to a higher priority activity
ok but risky: new higher (than current) priority activity -> hurts focus yet helps will power, potentially.
This is where focus enabling interfaces must draw the line, and in fact, explicitly avoid other use cases:
context switch to similar (to current) priority activity
new similar (to current) priority activity
context switch to lower (than current) priority activity
new lower (than current) priority activity
This prioritization still leaves a few open questions:
How does an interface know what is the user's current activity?
How important is it compared to another possibly new activity?
How does an interface determine what's an emergency (or not) for a particular user?
These questions are challenging in the abstract, however, when solving a particular design problem, they help prioritize the focus enabling aspects of the design.
Toward Focus Enabling Design
In the past few years the field of user experience design has grown to encompass both different sets of skills, and different approaches and methodologies. Here are a few:
In 20+ years of UX/UI design (since the time it was called HI (human interface) design), and searching for "design for focus", "interfaces of focus", "focus enabling design", I haven't found nor heard of prior similar analyses (possibly because the problem of distraction has only recently become pervasive). There are plenty of "distraction free" products (e.g. WriteRoom) that are designed for focus, but no analysis nor development of a theory/methodology/practice for focus enabling design as there are for those listed above.
If we want to address the problem of distraction it's not enough to design for what users want (people like distractions), nor their emotions (people anxiously check their inboxes/activity), nor their wide range of devices (for distractions on the go).
If we want to create interfaces that empower users by keeping them focused, we must explicitly prioritize focus enabling design.
I think the above analysis is a good start, and I'm going to put it into practice with the design problem described at the beginning of this post: a user interface for permalinks and citations of articles / blog posts. That's next.
I'd picked up Neal Stephenson's Anathem a while ago, but didn't really venture past a few pages until my friend Joel Franusic highly (re)recommended it, and told me it changed his life.
I have a lot of respect for Joel (we've had quite a few upsightful dialogs) so I decided to give the book another go. I picked up the mass market paperback at The Booksmith and have been reading it during flights, Caltrain, MUNI, and a few late nights here and there. Other than some minor annoyances at the lack of rigor on multicosmic theories, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I'm not ready to call it life-changing just yet. However, there are practices, cultures, and systems in the book that I'm still considering, analyzing, and trying to figure out what may make sense to try in our world. With that said, rather than a book review, here are a few quotes from Anathem that will provide a feeling for it without spoiling the story.
"Some are no more than a one-room apartment with an electrical clock hanging on the wall and a well-stocked bookcase. One avout lives there alone, with no speely, no jeejah. Perhaps every few years an Inquisitor comes round and pokes his head in the door, just to see that all is well."
Ambiguity: troubles or relief?
The only shard that lodged in my memory was his concluding line: "If this all seems ambiguous, that's because it is; and if that troubles you, you'd hate it here; but if it gives you a feeling of relief, then you are in the right place and might consider staying."
Interface not made for literate people
I went into the shade of the great roof over the canal and sat on a stack of wooden pallets, then took out the cartabla and figured out how to use its interface. This took longer than I'd expected because it wasn't made for literate people. I couldn't make any headway at all with its search functions, because of all its cack-handed efforts to assist me.
"Here it's all about the messals. The maximum head count is seven. That's considered to be the largest number you can fit around a table such that everyone can hear, and people aren't always splitting off into side conversations."
"She's the Warden Fendant of a small math on the top of a skyscraper in a big city that is in the middle of a sectarian holy war."