The answer is ‘no,’ according to Linda Stone. A former Microsoft executive and researcher, Stone claims we choose to be in a state of ‘continuous partial attention,’ which is a cause of the sensory overload that many of us experience. Stone was recently recognized for these observations by Harvard Business School, which ranked it #7 on its Breakthrough Ideas for 2007.
The idea is fascinating. When we obsessively monitor text messages on our Blackberries during a meeting or check voicemail on our cell phones while driving, we aren’t paying full attention to what we are doing, but instead are paying partial attention in an attempt to keep up and not miss anything. This ‘always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior,’ writes Stone, ‘involves an artificial sense of constant crisis’ that compromises our ability ‘to reflect, to make decisions, and to think creatively.’ It’s based on the assumption ‘that personal bandwidth can match the endless bandwidth technology offers.’ But it obviously can’t.
If ‘continuous partial attention’ is a real social phenomenon, then we need to design for it. We should understand people’s needs and limitations and apply a user-centered design philosophy. If users are constantly distracted and unable to focus, then we need to design interfaces that don’t require them to think. We can do this by using well-recognized conventions, persistent navigation, common nomenclature, simple interactions, and other well-known tools of the field. And when we break the mold to design something new, which we should occasionally do, we need to test it on real users to ensure it works. We can’t mitigate continuous partial attention overnight, but for now we can design for it.