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Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Thoughts on Multi-tasking

Multi-tasking is one of the 21st century mega trends. As we are living more and more hectic lives the pressure to perform several task in parallell is growing and perceived by many as a refuge to save time for relaxation. Is this intense multi-tasking a good or bad thing? At Etech I was again stunned by the level of multi-tasking people seemed capable of doing. People were listening to speeches, chatting on IRC, blogging and of course answering e-mails. I am not sure if the audience actually once logged-on to web intensive tasks actually resulted in a log-off from listening? I was atleast logged-off from listening, when I was trying to multi-task. I do not know if this is due to lack of experience, a poorly working PC or a genrally mal functioning brain.

The lack of experience is clearly one issue, I am normally not in my work multi-tasking by chatting. At most writing some, sms, maybe reading some e-mail. These two tasks are both time defeered, meaning that I am not forced to give my full attention while performing them, hence in my opinion they lend themselfves well to multi-tasking. Chatting, following a chat or blogging seems to be higher involvement tasks and thus having a negative impact on the listening attention. It would be interesting to hear others experience from this.

Mal functioning tools seems to be a fact. We have come accept the fact that the computer is a poorly working tool. My wife is actually amused when I have turned making the computer work or "configuring" into a hobby. It seems that a significant part of the time I spend in front of my computer is spent tuning it. At ETech I was clearly impaired by very sensitive VPN connection. When loosing the connection there was nothing else to do than to reboot. I have not had any recent experience using a Laptop Mac, the last one I had and loved was the PoweBook Duo 230. At ETech the Mac penetration was close to 50% and I think one reason is that it is the best 'wireless on-line' computer available. In my spare time I am using Mac that is a fixed G4 at home... I am now not able to discuss the actual usability of the tools, as my problems still are on a more rudimentary level.

The third reason is the brain, or lack of it. It seems that the brain is suitable to multi-tasking. We walk, talk, and even chew bubble gum. Or we drive, talk and navigate. There are numerous instances in daily life where we are multi-tasking at a extreme level and we take this for granted. The reason is that these task follow a strict priority order and wary in intensity. If we, for example, while driving encounter some traffic we need to pass we can suspend the talking for a while and the chewing of bubblegum and then resume these task once the situation is normalised. If we think of SW design and UI design the same way, we should be able to improve our ablility to multi-task by designing applications, so that they can be left in a suspend state for a while without having the task collapse. This is not how the Personal Computer UI was designed, but it is how the mobile phone UI was design. Even simple things like moving the mouse and talking at the same time seems too much for most people. If we think back were mobile phone UI's were first introduced it was in the car and there it was not the primary task. Hence the click-look-click paradigm is inherently better for multi-tasking than using a mouse. In the world of convergence it will be very interesting to follow where paradigmes emerge.

My prediction is that in the mobile connected world we will see more and more user experiences emerging that lend themselves to low intensity multi-tasking rather than active mono-tasking.

I do not think the brain will evolve quickly enough, and I guess I have to be an optimist and blame the tools and partly the experience, rather than the lack of intellectual capacity.

05:26 AM in Work | Permalink


Given the state of mobile UIs we seem to have to wait until we achieve even the most rudimentary multi-tasking. Even in e.g. Java-enabled phones, the browser cannot start the Java environment and vice versa, and they often cannot run at the same time.

But this is also in great part a usability problem -- it must be clear to the user what application is answering the key presses. If you are in a phone call, and browsing the Internet at the same time, and the IVR call asks you to "PRESS 2", it must be clear to all parties that the command doesn't go into the browser.

Posted by: Simon Winter at Feb 17, 2004 11:30:07 AM

In general, I feel that multitasking is something that occurs to most people rather naturally. It is just that we haven't really trained our brain to do it with cognition-intensive tasks, like reading, writing, and listening. It may seem difficult, but I am convinced that it is a skill that one can learn.

I find that I lose more of my efficiency when I am uncertain how to proceed in a given situation while doing one thing, than when I am multitasking and I know what to do on all the tracks.

Posted by: Janne Jalkanen at Feb 17, 2004 3:07:51 PM

Going to faraway place to listen a speech and then tune out to surf the web has always felt a bit funny to me. But the obvious advantage to staying at home and reading the powerpoints is the networking between people, and being able to broaden your horizon.

About the involvement of different tasks - I find surfing the web to be much more intensive attention stealer than following a chat window (such as IRC). Then again, it's all about what you are used to: I have had open IRC window somewhere on my screen for almost 16 years.

Of course it's very easy to get carried away if the topics at the chat window are more interesting than the discussion in the real world. You need to learn a new skill: how not to be carried away. I had to learn this the hard way when a WLAN started to be available at the meeting rooms in my earlier job.

Posted by: samik at Feb 18, 2004 12:00:05 AM

I don't accept the view that people can carry out ,simultaneously,more than one task. The human brain is not a parallel processor,rather a serial
processor. Computers may be designed to compute in a parallel manner, but the human brain can only entertain one thought at a time.
I suspect that what we call multi,i.e. parallel,simultaneous tasking really consists of rapid switching from one task to another.
I tried a simple experiment . Memorise six lines of text and try simultaneously to carry out six longish arithmetic calculations
Individually,each task took about six minutes; attempting a simultaneous process I found impossible ,in that I had to switch rapidly from task to task .
This serial switching increased the time to completion to more than the twelve minutes.
The more rapidly I switched the longer it took to complete.
So called multi,i.e. simultaneous tasking probably cannot be practised,rapid serial switching decreases the efficiency of task completion

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