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The Culture of Technology Intrusion in Product Design

May 2022: Authored by Edward Wald, published by Digital Accessibility Program

We no longer segment our daily activities into undisturbed units of time like back in the days of wall phones. Technology has closed the proximity gap promoting intrusion at any given moment, especially since we carry around our mobile devices with us. The work office is where the “Culture of Technology Intrusion” began. It began with a single rotary desk phone, then two or more desk phones to manage single lines, then a single phone with buttons to switch even more lines, all the way to today’s mobile devices managing phone calls along with a myriad of other screaming notifications.

Interrupt driven

Technology has evolved so quickly the impact of intrusions are not fully understood, but we still need to attempt to manage them. Our effort to produce products accommodating accessibility users seem to be the only formal measures currently helping to address intrusion. Have you stopped to consider how intrusions cause a reduction in mental performance? Or how intrusions have shortened our attention span? This article explains how spontaneous intrusions “demanding” our attention impacts all users, along with some product design approaches to help prevent them from happening.

We can start with what we can control — the mobile products we build. Users have “evolved” to accept, even desire, intrusions for their instant gratification. As designers, our goal is to entice users to focus only on our products. We make this happen by creating experiences that users choose to focus their attention on, while mentally fending off other intrusions that may get in the way. We need to create experiences that hold the user’s attention.

Context switching

People choose to focus on what’s most important to them in the moment. Though some may believe we can multitask, the human brain can only focus on a single executive idea at a time. What we think of as multitasking is really just the switching back-and-forth of ideas in our executive thinking. The goal is to design products to maintain a user’s train of thought so they choose not to multitask.

When you’re working on a task and are distracted, how long can you focus on the distraction before you loose track of the original task? For some people with memory challenges, it is a very short time. It’s the needs of these users that we use as a baseline when designing interaction to hold attention. The goal is to design interaction so users want to focus on our experience, more than anything else that may demand their attention.

Designing for task completion

Every moment, from the start of a user’s task to their completion, should be designed to satisfy their attention. Given the smaller viewport of mobile devices, this is more difficult than ever. Designs that aim to steer a user’s current thought toward their next thought have the best chance of accomplishing this. “You did something, so you can now do this, in order to do the next thing.” We want to build this chain of thought into our designs to guide the user’s journey. When this concept is not applied, the user’s interaction becomes fragmented, risking digression from the task. We want to prevent the temptation of users to multitask.

Users are drawn from their current thought to the next thought that’s most interesting to them. The next most interesting idea to a user will be what’s most relevant to their current thought. If they have a question, they will gravitate to what’s going to help them answer it. If they finish one step, they will gravitate to what leads them to the next step; like a form label, instruction, or system messaging event. If the design does not support this linkage of thought, the user will have a momentary blank in their focus and will need to take it upon themselves to figure out what to do next. In this brief moment, we could loose our user’s attention. If we fail to design step-by-step guidance into tasks, it increases the chance of them becoming distracted away from it. Let’s explore this issue with an example.

Accessibility users read a page title to confirm they have clicked the correct link. Once this is confirmed, they look for the first page heading to know where to start the task. These three points of reference, the originating link text, the destination page title, and first page heading move the user along preventing them from digressing. It holds their attention.

If they had to stop and think because because of poor design, it would cause an increase in cognitive load/strain. This opens a mental gap susceptible to multitasking. We can employ some design exercises to help prevent areas that may cause an increase in user cognitive load/strain. Dive deeper into this area in the The User/System Conversation article.

Going from pre to post

The link, page title, page heading relationship example can be applied to every element presented to the user on a mobile screen. This is sometimes referred to as the user’s pre-condition, moment, and post-condition. The pre-condition is what motivated the user before the current step. The moment closely follows the pre-condition, solving the current step, and what the user will need to take forward with them to the next step, the post-condition. Let’s use the system login experience as an example.

If the user navigates to the login form, the user wanting to log in is the pre-condition. Logging in is what is on their mind. The page title, “Login Page”, should confirm they are on the correct page to pull them along and prevent them from digressing. The first heading label, such as “Login Form”, should indicate where the task begins. It pulls the user along and causes them to look for the next step. If the next step, enter username, has a clear field label, the user will gravitate toward it and into its field. This continues until the user completes the task, at which time they should be greeted with the next system conversational element; a log in confirmation message, a page title, etc. The log in task is a simple example that’s familiar to most users, but consider a user in a task flow they have never seen before. How much would they need to think about it if the user-system conversation was not designed well?

Walking in their shoes

Cognitive keyboard walkthroughs and heuristic walkthroughs, whether hands on or simulated, are two ways of evaluating mobile designs. They can identify areas that don’t support the connection of page elements needed to hold the users attention. These walkthroughs examine each element to ensure continuity.

  • Does this element support user’s previous thoughts?
  • Does this element provide everything users need to understand its interaction?
  • Does the interaction guide users forward to the next step?

A users journey is guided by their “conversation” with the system. The mobile UX interaction designer and UX writer are mostly responsible for designing this into the user’s experience. When there are gaps in the user-system conversation, the user must solve what is missing. Building on the navigation example above, if a page does not have a page title, the user will need to investigate to confirm they are viewing the correct page. There is a conversational breakdown because the system is missing its part of the conversation. It’s like a one-way conversational puzzle for the user to solve.

Preventing distractions

Designing for users that are only able to hold their attention for a very short amount of time is the key to preventing distractions. When that mobile alert covers the content a user is working with, we want them to easily return and pick up where they left off to complete the task. There are creative ways to make this happen such as the use of graphics and numbered lists. However, nothing can replace exercising careful attention to defining user-system conversational elements such as labels and instructions.

Most of us are power users of mobile devices. Resisting the temptation to minimize page elements and layout by assuming all users are at your level can be challenging. However, this activity should take place at the UX design stage after the UX interaction has been fully defined. There are many levels of users and user types that need to be considered during the design process.

To help fend off user digression, the system should be fully usable at the UX interaction stage. As discussed in Tipping Into an Accessibility Culture, it’s the interaction design stage where the user-system conversational elements are defined. Additionally, this is the only information available to some users such as blind users. More user issues and expenses result from producing the visual design before the interaction design. Retrofitting visual designs to fix interaction defects is the reverse of mindful planing ensuring the proper user-system conversation needed to hold the users attention. Today’s effective mobile product design is evermore challenging generations beyond the days of wall phones. To remain ahead of these challenges, mobile product designers are required to incorporate usability concepts more stringently that ever before.

Recommended additional resources links:
Journal of Cognition – Working Memory and Attention – A Conceptual Analysis and Review

Particle Psychology – Stream of Thought

Controlling the stream of thought: Working memory capacity predicts adjustment of mind-wandering to situational demands
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