Feed the Habit: Digital Multitasking

25 Aug

During a recent research and strategy project at Adaptive Path, our team uncovered a fascinating pattern around media multitasking—most participants between 20 and 30 years of age watched TV or movies while engaging with laptops, iPads, and smart phones. Our team was able to categorize this behavior into levels of multitasking ranging from backgrounding, which was more common, to full on media multitasking.

I am guilty of this behavior too with multiple applications running, responding to email and reading SMS—all while watching TV. But the fundamental question our team debated was why we needed to attend to all of these tasks at once? Our best response was that we feel more efficient or productive, as we maximize our time across multiple activities.

This raises an important issue: should we design for multitasking behavior, or are we feeding a habit that is a gateway to distraction and overall work inefficiency? Are we becoming a society of unfocused, half-attentive people who are constantly mid-way through six different conversations by catering to media multitasking? It’s bad enough during meetings or even at restaurants when someone pulls out their phone, causing a chain reaction of phone checking.

Digital multitasking features arguably enhance productivity. I believe that multitasking adds a level of complexity our brains enjoy. We like the challenge, or illusion of challenge, that multitasking creates. When completing a variety of simple tasks the brain can react to the foremost stimuli rather than the lull of autopilot. Simply put, it’s just more stimulating than the same dull routine.

I think multitasking is a behavior that designers should take into consideration when planning for their product or service. If we can orient features and functions to assist in accomplishing more than one task at a time, rather than to distract or hinder, we’ll emerge a more seamless and productive experience. It’s rare that we stop and ask, “This interface is intuitive, but does it help the user focus to accomplish the task? Will the user become distracted and not bother to complete it?”

Ideally, the user will be filled with a sense of accomplishment as a result of our ability to consider other tasks going on simultaneously.

Originally published August 25, 2010 at Adaptive Path.


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