Losing Focus, or Why Performance Matters in Business Applications
One of the most important, must-have skills in today’s economy is multitasking. At almost every level of the information economy, we need to be able to do not only our regular job, but also process emails, answer phone calls, respond to people who come to visit us at our desk, and scores of other little interruptions during the day. As a result, users have become more adept at switching from task to task, causing the threshold for what constitutes a “pause” in one task long enough to move on to another to become smaller and smaller.
Generally speaking, there are two reasons why a person switches tasks; they are interrupted, or they feel like they have the time to work on something else while waiting for something to happen. An example of the former is when a person walks into their cubicle, or their phone rings; they must stop what they’re doing and respond to the new event. The latter is something a little more subtle, but arguably more important to address. Perhaps a user asks to see a particular customer’s record in their CRM system. If the system takes 4 or 5 seconds to come back with a list when they input the customer’s name, that person probably feels like they can Alt-Tab over to their email, or check their Twitter feed on their phone, or look ahead in their work queue to see what other customers are coming up.
Each of those tasks can distract the user’s attention beyond the original waiting time; they may need to respond to an email, or they notice a problem with an upcoming customer. The end result is that the user loses focus and moves on to another task; they might not return to the one they were originally working on for a few minutes. When they do return to the task, it will take the user a moment to reorient themselves, costing still more time.
This behavior occurs not only in business applications, but in almost any system a user uses on a regular basis. From swapping tabs when Google takes too long to losing yourself in a YouTube video while you were waiting for Facebook to load, high-speed response is a critical aspect of delivering a user experience today. While websites that focus on driving user engagement have already recognised this priority, the business application development community has yet to make the same realization. Even in a workplace, your application is competing for the users’ attention, and failure to maintain it detracts from the utility and cost-effectiveness of your software far beyond the milliseconds of processing time lost.
- What do you feel are the worst distractors? Which ones do you think pop up the most frequently?
- How skilled are you at multitasking? Do you think it’s a skill that can be learned or improved?
- Do you think people are more distracted at work than they used to be? Why or why not?
- If you could design your own work environment, what distractions would you cut out? What methods would you employ to prevent them?