Paying Attention to the Forgotten Human Factor – Updated


Process improvement often focuses on easily measured metrics: the time required to complete a task, error rates, transactions per time period. Six Sigma projects in IT often focus on easily quantified bottlenecks like bandwidth, uptime, and the utilization rate of humans. Yet there is an equally crucial bottleneck that is rarely realized: human attention.


People have a limited amount of attention as they have a limited amount of time on the job. And as with time, there are many things vying for that attention. Some distracters that take away user or computer operator attention can be handled via human resources: noise canceling headphones to reduce noise distractions, privacy screens to reduce wandering conversations, abandoning the open office concept that dumps people into a perpetually distracting environment. This gives users more time and attention to put into the software applications they are using. Yet those software applications themselves may be adding to the attention disruptions they suffer.


Statements like “Just add a pop up when they should see the error” or “Oh, give them a notice when the transaction is complete” are easy to say and almost as easy to implement. If the user had only that one application running when the error appeared, it would get the attention it deserved. Now jump into reality. The user has logged on and started bringing up the four to six applications they often use simultaneously. Virus software updates pop up immediately. A couple of IMs shouting for someone to do something appear. Maybe a junk pop-up message from your browser. Add in periodic login prompts, information only notices, and true error messages, and the high priority pop-up notice gets closed along with 20 other lesser notices. Users respond to the deluge by glancing at – or not even looking at – all the messages before closing them all.


Problems resulting from so many attention disrupting messages include:

  • Errors not getting noticed, and thus not getting resolved
  • Wasted time by users closing informational messages they don’t need
  • Distraction from their primary tasks as they attempt to evaluate the actions necessary from so many information sources
  • Interruption of their primary tasks from non-value added messages, which in turn increases their error rates


How then can IT deal with these attacks on the efficient use of human attention? There are several possible solutions:


  • Don’t use pop-up notices to inform users of completed transactions and other minor informational messages. Put the message clearly on the screen instead.
  • If the error is important, have the error come up on large text on the application or browser screen. More importantly, don’t let the user complete the transaction until the error is resolved. If the error is a pop-up which can be closed, the odds increase that the pop-up will be ignored or closed without corrective action. If it is a critical error, don’t let them proceed. Design the applications so that users cannot close a pop-up in habit and then not understand why they cannot continue to the next step.
  • If applications require frequent updating, either schedule the updates for non-user time or push out updates without user notification. They should not have their attention taken away for things they either have no control of or do not care about.
  • Discourage IM in place of human communication when someone is doing something important. If it isn’t important enough to warrant calling or visiting the person, then it probably isn’t worth bothering the person in the first place – and thus a needless distraction. The rare exception is instant messaging someone to notify them of a serious problem, but too many use IM to create digital equivalents of dropping by to chat while the instinctive response of the younger generation is to reply, even if disrupting an important task to say “I’m busy”, not realizing this in and of itself increases the odds they’ll make a mistake.
  • Design software from the beginning to minimize the number of pop-ups and notices receive in the first place. Save disruptive notifications for high priority issues so that they get the attention they deserve.


Software applications and environments should factor in that most underappreciated yet so critical bottleneck – human attention.