Friday, January 26, 2007

Sensemaking 3:The search for a representation

Sensemaking continued - Part 3 ...

"I promised a story about a sensemaking episode from my work, and here’s one. It’s a bit long, but I think you’ll find it amusing. It’s really a voyage of discovery as I try to figure out how to make sense of what people do… which is ultimately what my scientific life is all about: What do people do? How do they do it? And why do they act that way?

How do people manage interruptions?

A few years ago I became very interested in how people manage their interruptions. We’ve talked a lot about this in the CPU blog over the years. See: The Asymptotic Twitter Curve and Multitasking makes us stupid? and it’s still an area of active interest in the research community and here at Creating Passionate Users.

But back in 1996 I was still at Apple and very much curious about how people did to actually manage their time and attention resources. So, being a good research guy, I went out and did a field study of some experts in attention management—our administrative assistants. After all, they somehow manage to simultaneously answer the phone, respond to email, process paperwork, deal with visitors and answer questions shouted out down the hall. If you watch a good assistant for any time, it’s clear that they’re masters at interrupt handling. The ones that are good, are REALLY good.

So, how do they do it?

I videotaped several hours of assistants during the busy parts of their day and was pretty amazed. As I coded up each of the events they handled (phone-call, person-at-desk, email, etc.) I wrote down what the event was, when it happened, what resources the assistant needed to resolve the request and how long it took to handle it. Simple.

Then, from this data, I thought I’d build an interruption model that would allow me to predict how well a given person could handle various kinds, speeds and degrees of interruptions. What I was REALLY after was a kind of test bed where we could simulate different kinds of software tools and gadgets to help out with interruption handling. I was also curious about what the upper limit of interruptions is in the office environment. NASA has done some great work in modeling pilot workload factors, and I was wondering about the office worker—how would they respond under differing workloads?

So I collected my data and began to try and build a model of it.

Now there’s a representation of problem-solving behavior that’s been around since 1972 when Alan Newell and Herb Simon wrote about Human Problem Solving in their (now classic) tome. A problem-behavior graph (I’ll call them PBGs) is a boxes-and-arrows way to show what “knowledge states” people go through in the course of solving a problem."    (Continued via Creating Passionate Users)    [Usability Resources]

Problem Behavior Graph - Usability, User Interface Design

Problem Behavior Graph


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