Placeholding: Doesn’t Cure Interruptions, But It Reduces Symptoms

September 26, 2007 at 8:21 am | Posted in Attention Management, interruption science, Office, usability | 1 Comment

I’ve become convinced that one of the most significant attentional technologies that software vendors could incorporate to accommodate interruptions is what I’d call placeholding.  Since “bookmarking” has come to mean pointers to specific entries rather than points anywhere within an entry I prefer the word “placeholding”.

Why do applications that allow you to move around large pieces of content (Microsoft Word and Excel, Adobe Reader, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox) always assume you want to start at the beginning when opening a document instead of where it was the last time you looked at it?  More than half the time I think I would want it opened to where I left off when I last closed it.  And if I didn’t it’s easy enough to hit ctrl-home to get to the top whereas it is impossible to start at the top and hit a key to get to where you left off.  At a minimum it could be a preference checkbox.  This placeholding includes where the cursor was as well as what state various toggle buttons and selections were at (such as that I was in boldface, red text, the highlighter was yellow, and I had just selected a region). 

There are some technical issues to be worked around here.  Sometimes you don’t want to modify the file – a separate placeholder file, like a browser’s bookmark file could accommodate this issue.  Sometimes there are multiple users on a PC or files get shared – storing user name along with the place like some cookies do could fix that.  I don’t think the technical issues are a stopping point.  We tolerate other actions that don’t guess what we want to do correctly 100% of the time that have a lot less benefit.

In “No Task Left Behind? Examining the Nature of Fragmented Work”, a paper by Gloria Mark, Victor M. Gonzalez, and Justin Harris from the University of California, Irvine, they talk about technology requirements for supporting for fragmented work:

Two decades ago Bannon et al. suggested a set of
requirements for information technology to support
multitasking including providing fast task-switching and the
easy retrieval of mental context. Our work expands these
requirements for multi-tasking. We suggest three main
directions for supporting multi-tasking behavior: 1)
interruptions ideally should match the current working sphere
in order to provide benefits instead of disruptions, 2) one
should be able to easily and seamlessly switch between tasks,
and 3) interrupted tasks should be easily recoverable by
preserving the state of the task when it was interrupted and
by providing cues for reorienting to the task.

It’s this third design criteria that I’m describing here – being able to preserve the state of an application or a set of applications. 

But placeholding doesn’t seem to be high on request lists for new features, so vendors haven’t paid a lot of attention.  In the meantime I’ve gotten into the habit of doing a crude workaround while reviewing large Word documents where I place manual bookmarks within documents I’m reading by typing “[bookmark]” in long documents and saving a new local version.

While there is some minor time benefit to having placeholding, I believe the primary benefit is psychological.  A standard work pattern for information workers is that during a day they become deeply nested in what they are doing.  Multiple browser windows, a spreadsheet or two, a custom app, and a document may all be open to various palaces and the user becomes a juggler keeping all the balls circulating in their mind.  A system crash is the most extreme event that makes one realize how much they were juggling as they attempt to recreate their state upon rebooting.  Keeping these placeholders in memory hinders task-switching and increases the stress the user feels when being interrupted (or anticipates the potential of interruption).  Knowing that places are being held would not eliminate the need to retain mental context, but would reduce it by removing the burden to remember all the documents opened and places within those documents.  I hope that vendors do additional research into how users react to placeholding from an attention management, interruption science, and usability point of view. 


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  1. […] wrote yesterday about the value of placeholding as an interruption management technology.  I believe placeholding is an important but rarely mentioned benefit of virtual and […]

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