portable, and wireless Internet access gets us
online all the time. Second, we have created
an expectation for ourselves and for our
groups of friends, families, and colleagues
that we are accessible, at almost any time,
no matter where we are. Early on, this was
great: “if there’s an emergency, you can call
me on my cell phone. Then it became, “if
you’ve got a question, you can call me on
my cell phone.” Then it was, “if you want
to chat, you can call me on my cell phone.”
Unfortunately, not even caller ID can
distinguish among those calls for you, yet
the kind of call may determine whether or
not you have the time or desire to take it.
If this problem comes up as a combination of technological capability and social
expectations, can we use technology and
change social expectations to counter it?
I suspect we can, but much of the technology work still needs to happen, or move out
of research labs and into the common tools
we use. A small example of something helpful is the Growl notification service used by
some applications on Mac OS. In a typical
configuration, Growl provides a notice (say,
an incoming IM) in a window that fades in
unobtrusively in the corner of the screen, and
then fades away. It may or may not capture
your attention, but it’s also easy to take it in
quickly and let it go, if that’s appropriate. It’s
a step in the right direction.
A broader set of technological
capabilities would encompass ways to filter
the importance of certain items. Email
programs often have some ways to do this,
although the filtering often gets in the way
of processing all your emails when you
are ready to do that. Some
better tools for senders (of
any communications, not just
email) to indicate the urgency
would also help. But the critical factor
with such technological capabilities is the
social expectations of how they get used
and responded to. It’s true that the tools
encourage certain behaviors, but it is more
important how you set your own boundaries
and expectations. If you respond to business
communication outside of work hours, then
you create an expectation that you will do
that. If you create some time for focused,
uninterrupted work, you might have to get
out of the office, but you can often make
A challenge for all of this is that
teams can react more quickly and be
more productive with smooth, rapid
communication. So if the communications
systems (phone, email, Twitter, IM,
whatever) are used well, the team can move
quickly. If a member of the team isn’t
responsive, it can slow everyone down.
A key part of the social expectations,
then, should be what the group’s needs
and practices are, with a balance of
responsiveness and focused time.
Sometimes the communications challenges
are all around us, but not quite visible. How
do you avoid distractions when that’s what
you need to do? Is your team responsive in
communications? Take a step back and think
about how you get your communications,
interruptions, and focused work done. If
you’re feeling insp~ired, try to do it without he interruptions.
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© 2008 ACM 1091-556/08/0900 $5.00.
Win Treese is co-author of Designing Systems For Internet Commerce.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.