Managing Interruptions = Better Digital Product Design

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Anna Cox is Reader in Human-Computer Action (HCI) at UCL Interaction Centre. She and her colleagues investigate how best to design technologies to make them usable, useful, and to create a positive user experience in the context of the real world.

What she and her colleagues have found (And this shouldn’t surprise any of us) is that how people react to and use digital products in the real world is a far cry from how the behave in controlled environments! In this talk, Anna shows us how even a basic understanding of human psychology can be a huge advantage when it comes to design digital products that people love.

Modern smartphones, smart watches, and even smart rings are pushing the interfaces of digital products further and further into our physical world, to the point where it’s actually quite challenging to disentangle yourself from engaging with your digital products, even when you want to. Dr Cox’ research has been exploring how these kinds of ubiquitous notification systems have impacted the way we use our devices and services.

Digital Products Mix Contexts

One of the most obvious examples of this impact is the blending of work and non-work activities – specifically, notifications from one context interrupting you while you’re in the other (e.g. work email notifications while you’re having dinner, or a dinner invitation from your friend while you’re writing a report). Of course, in some cases, these cross-overs can be hugely valuable (such as an alert that your child has had an accident).

The challenge here is that these interruptions force us to make decisions about the relative importance of the incoming information, and if we do engage with the alert, then we’re disengaged with whatever is happening wherever we are physically present (e.g. a meeting, dinner, etc.). More importantly, human attentional capacity is fundamentally quite limited. Context switching costs us a significant amount of time and cognitive energy.

Interestingly, we don’t only lose attention when our devices alert us – we typically volunteer our attention to our devices readily (often when we’re bored, or not particularly interested in our current task, or when we’re concerned we might miss out on something at work).

Different People, Different Preferences

Some people actively enjoy managing multiple different kinds of tasks, in different kinds of environments and at different times. These so-called “Integrators” do not have rigid boundaries between work and non-work, and so find notifications and alerts extremely useful.

On the other hand, “Separators” maintain strong boundaries between the different parts of their lives (as an example, it’s difficult for a surgeon to take her work home!). Of course, it’s likely that people’s personal preferences along these lines actually lead them to certain professions, so it’s likely that the vast majority of (in this example) surgeons are naturally “Separators”, and that they found medicine a perfect vocation.

The Shape of Boundaries

People draw boundaries around different parts of their digital lives using different accounts, devices and apps. As a simple example, almost everyone has multiple email addresses, and they use different addresses for different parts of their lives. You could easily substitute “email address” for “devices”, and in this way you can see how “separators” create boundaries, or equally how “integrators” will pool everything into a single email account or device.

What’s more interesting is the people somewhere in-between Integrators and Separators – their approach was to use multiple apps, allowing all their information to be on a single device but separated into different applications (even if it’s different browsers with particular login details saves!)


  1. Read the research – check out “The Conversation” – academic research can be very dry, but that is slowly changing. Given how much insight academic research can give, it’s worth digging into, or even just asking the right academics!
  2. Study adoption – Test your products in the lab, but it is essential that you study how your product is adopted in the real world – what it is used alongside, etc.
  3. Enable personalisation – as we’ve seen, people often have wildly different preferences for what information they get from their digital products, and when. It’s worth enabling multiple ways (or at least thoughtful ways) for users to personalise what kind of information alerts your products are sending them.

Finally – your team is also split up into separators and integrators! They will react to information differently, and you should understand and respect that in order to form the best possible relationship with them.

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  • Karl Wood

    Really insightful. This is a ‘known problem’ so it’s critical we apply such knowledge to the email community. Perhaps we should offer users timeframes for the sending of these emails, when they sign up?

    • Chris

      I think there’s a balancing act between humane product design and user control. For example, one way I used to deal with this was to literally shut down my email client during certain hours of the day to get stuff done. When it comes to apps on my phone, I’ll consciously start turning off notifications if I notice that I’m not doing anything with them. I think there IS work to be done around “smart” and messages (and, indeed, some of the recent announcements around iOS and Android are really interesting), but I don’t think we should put all the responsibility on product creators to know what is best for all users in all contexts 🙂

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