Don’t steal my focus


in Daily updates, Geek stuff, Rants

Mural on Somerset Street, Ottawa

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:

  1. Urgent system messages: if my battery is going to die in sixty seconds, I need to know it.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Anon September 10, 2007 at 9:07 am

That photo certainly stole my focus…

What a thing for a Monday morning.

Maddie September 11, 2007 at 4:10 pm

At the red cross the e-mail system would announce new e-mails as well as the first line of the e-mail. I used to have to turn the function off on the busier days otherwise I’d get notifications every 30 seconds, and feel obliged to deal with the e-mails that moment. It can be so stressful. Argh.

Milan January 25, 2013 at 2:47 pm

Would it be an overreaction to create a custom operating system in which focus is never stolen? Perhaps it could be a Linux variant, in which nothing is ever allowed to appear on top of the active window…

Milan October 15, 2014 at 10:39 am

I still hate this about Mac OS X.

How hard would it be to check if you are in the middle of typing in one window and, if so, prevent focus from jumping to another because it happens to be opening in the background?

. January 14, 2018 at 8:49 pm

Distractions clearly affect performance on the job. In a recent essay, Dan Nixon of the Bank of England pointed to a mass of compelling evidence that they could also be eating into productivity growth. Depending on the study you pick, smartphone-users touch their device somewhere between twice a minute to once every seven minutes. Conducting tasks while receiving e-mails and phone calls reduces a worker’s IQ by about ten points relative to working in uninterrupted quiet. That is equivalent to losing a night’s sleep, and twice as debilitating as using marijuana. By one estimate, it takes nearly half an hour to recover focus fully for the task at hand after an interruption. What’s more, Mr Nixon notes, constant interruptions accustom workers to distraction, teaching them, in effect, to lose focus and seek diversions.

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