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Compressing Information into an Indicator

You might have heard the story about the "no brown M&Ms clause” in Van Halen's touring contract. Most people thought this was an example of the band being entitled rock stars, but it was actually a brilliant way for Van Halen's technical crew to determine whether the contract had been read or not.* Van Halen often toured with semi trucks full of equipment, and sometimes smaller stages couldn't bear the load. After a few close encounters with local crews underestimating the weight of the equipment on stage and endangering the audience, lead singer David Lee Roth decided to put a gotcha in the contract. No brown M&Ms. This brilliant example of a calm technology allowed all of the variables of the show to be compressed into a single indicator. Are there brown M&Ms in the bowl? There will probably be a technical error. As the singer wrote in his autobiography: "So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl...well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you're going to arrive at a technical error.” The consequences for technical errors could be severe. "Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.”1

* “Brown Out,” Snopes, 2014. ( ) 1 Roth, David Lee. Crazy from the Heat. New York: Hyperion, 1997.

A vehicle, a teapot, a washer/dryer have all evolved over time to meet our needs . They work with us and we work with them in the periphery. But new devices, such as smartphones, have become part of our everyday lives but hasn’t yet learned to be calm or quiet . Just like the desktop computers of the ’80s, they frequently demand our full attention, distract us, beep at us, and don’t make use of the periphery.

A useful way to think of this is to decide whether your technology is a primary goal or task, or a secondary task during the pursuit of a primary goal .

The group messaging software known as Slack ( got its start as part of an online game called Glitch . It was originally designed not as a standalone app, but as an integrated chat interface that allowed people to communicate while playing the game . Ironically, its origin as a secondary tool may be what has made Slack so successful .

Because it was never intended to take up your full attention, it was designed from the start to work well within an environment where the user's focus is directed elsewhere .

The Slack interface dashboard communicates things like active users and unread channels through subtle cues like colored dots and text that toggles between bold and standard typeface (see Figure 2-3) . When running in the background, it announces new messages via a small blue dot on its desktop icon When it gets disconnected, it simply turns your text box yellow while reconnecting, rather than interrupting you with a pop-up box or text message


The Slack internal communication system.

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A lot of talk in recent years about learning interaction techniques from game design focuses on features like leaderboards and reward medals . As Slack indicates, one of the great contributions of game design to productivity software has been an improved ability to get secondary tasks out of the way of the primary one, whether it’s shooting goblins or writing code . In Glitch, the primary task was to play the game; communication was secondary, but necessary. An office environment is exactly the same . The primary task should be work, and communication secondary.

As we get more and more devices making demands on our attention, we find it more difficult to get primary tasks done . We go online to respond to an email and get distracted by a Facebook message, text message, or article .

User interface researcher Antti Oulasvirta and his Finnish collaborators created what they called the “Resource Competition Framework” to describe the results of attention disruption on completing tasks They discussed how competing information technologies forces users to switch back and forth between tasks and external sources, temporarily leaving the switched-from tasks on hold or slowing them down . [1] For instance, a cell phone user sitting at a dinner table down the street might try to participate in the conversation of stablemates, but might find themselves frequently interrupted A person trying to finish writing a work email might get distracted by a smartwatch alert

  • [1] Oulasvirta, Antti, Sakari Tamminen, Virpi Roto, and Jaana Kuorelahti . “Interaction in4-second Bursts: The Fragmented Nature of Attentional Resources in Mobile HCI . ”Proceedings of SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2005, 919-28 .
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