Using a computer before multitasking is a concept so alien as to be almost unimaginable. Imagine, working with an Excel spreadsheet and Word document, having to close down one program entirely before you could use another. At the same time, the profusion of programs on the contemporary desktop brings problems of its own. The one that bothers me most is probably ‘focus stealing.’ (‘Focus theft’ would be correct, but I have never seen the term used.)
Say you are in the middle of typing an email. Suddenly, some irksome and entirely unrelated window appears, telling you that updates are available for X piece of software, or acknowledging that file Y has downloaded. Focus is stolen, and dealing with both tasks in a jumble takes a lot more time than dealing with them sequentially would have been.
At the root of this is a failure of design. The first failure is on the part of the application designers. Non-urgent messages should not pop up in the middle of other tasks. The same rule should be applied by people who create operating systems. They also have the opportunity to build annoyance prevention mechanisms right into the operating environment. Ideally, there should be three possible levels of notification:
- Urgent system messages: if my battery is going to die in sixty seconds, I need to know it.
- Notification of messages from a real human being who is actually online and who you are talking to. Most instant message programs are pretty aggressive about making this fact known, but Skype hides all non-call events like dirty secrets.
- General announcements like ‘you have email’ or ‘this software can be updated.’ Ideally, it should be possible to group all of these and get them as a digest every hour or so.
A few such features would probably garner a lot more appreciation – over the long term – than creating shiny new user interfaces.