Save Me From Myself: Designing for Multitasking

How to design for the busy mind?

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I’ll admit it. I was multitasking while writing this. With multiple projects on my mind, my work set-up demonstrated it. I had several Firefox tabs open with different types of sites, ranging from blogs to newspapers, Gmail to random research. I was saving bits and pieces of information into Evernote.  Books were laid open on the table. TED talks were playing in the background for inspiration. Let’s not forget Twitter, or the email notifications reminding me that I was missing some late-night work action. I was mentally all over the place, and to my detriment, was not finishing what I started.

Let’s face it, I created most of this situation. Much of my success depended on my ability to stay focused (which could be an entirely different article), but I’m not alone in feeling the need to stay on top of so much at one time.  Everything seems urgent, we don’t want to fall behind, or worse yet, miss something.

We need to understand what drives and motivates multitasking, so that we can design the right mix of freedom and constraint into the products we create. Perhaps we can help the multitaskers of the world to multitask more efficiently or, better yet, reduce the need to multitask at all.

What is multitasking?

According to Merriam Webster, multitasking is the performance of several tasks at one time.  Such a simple definition masks the complexity of it. There are three important dimensions to explore:

The ability to multitask, both physically and mentally
The requirement of multitasking, both self-created or as-designed
The effectiveness of multitasking, both perceived and actual

Ability to multitask

Is it even possible to perform several tasks at one time? Many have written (and much research suggests) that it is a great myth. Dave Crenshaw, author of The Myth of Multitasking: How “Doing It All” Gets Nothing Done writes,

When most people refer to multitasking, they are really talking about switchtasking. No matter how they do it, switching rapidly between two things is just not very efficient or effective.

But wait, I can drive my car and talk to my husband. I can walk down the street and talk on my phone. Isn’t that multitasking? It is, but often you’re dealing with tasks that have been learned, are repetitive, and require different parts of your brain. Regardless, cognitive load research would suggest that even with the appearance of simultaneous control, the appropriate attention you are able to give to any one task may be compromised. Sources of input, types of output, and physical actions required need to be considered.

Requirement to multitask

Is multitasking required to complete a greater task or goal? Is the need as-designed (ie. an airplane cockpit) or self-created (ie. four monitors with different programs running, books laid out, music playing)? Not all multitasking is created equal.

There is a lot to be learned about life-critical and mission-critical systems, such as medical devices or control panels at nuclear plants, much more than can be covered here. The important thing to note in these cases is that the purpose and impact of the system is mainly known, and great care needs to be taken in automating repetitive tasks, creating alerts when focus needs to be switched, and providing the right combination of information and controls that are needed at any one time.

Even in the systems that aren’t life threatening, we often inadvertently create a requirement to multitask by our design decisions. We create too many options, which in turn can increase the time it takes to make a decision. We provide a dashboard of everything rather than progressively disclosing information and controls. We don’t automate tasks that we know people perform all the time. We don’t create default setups to help those who are new to a product, and whose lack of experience creates a need to attune to more details than an expert.

For the things we can control, we need to consider where along the multitasking spectrum we want our products to sit:

Require multitasking
Demand attention across multiple variables

Constrain multitasking (or at least the need to)
Force focus, build in natural barriers, enable automation

Enable multitasking
Allow a person to decide if, when and how much to multitask

Effectiveness of multitasking

While we may not be fully attentive to everything we’re doing at the same time, we certainly want to feel as if we are doing well. In some ways, when we create our own multitasking contexts, we feel like we’re exerting control over the chaos. Everyone wants to feel like they’re succeeding at staying on top of it all, or even more simply, that they’re doing what they need to be doing, and doing it well. We can learn a lot about these situations by seeing the work-arounds people create in their own environments to accomplish their goals. What can we be doing within the products we design to address this?

In required multitasking situations, we need to understand what are the minimum and maximum number of tasks that need to be completed simultaneously, for effectiveness in this situation can often be critical. If there is sequence to the events, understanding dependencies is vital. For those systems where everything is available, much relies on the person’s understanding of what needs to be used, and when, and the affordances of controls.

This is where automation of, and even prevention of, tasks has really helped people’s perception of effective multitasking. With the advent of notification systems, we don’t have to literally go into our email client to see if we have any new mail. I can bookmark all of my critical sites so I don’t have to memorize URLs nor type it in. Automation can even change our lives by giving us insulin when we need it rather than us manually checking it all the time. Maybe someday people won’t be able to text while driving because the phone will ‘just know’ that you shouldn’t.

Consider the impact of multitasking in your design

Like it or not, people are being asked to do more in less time in many facets of our lives. Technology is also seen as the great enabler of this.  We can’t even begin to predict how our products will be fully used, and we certainly can’t prevent people from trying to multitask if they so choose. We can, however, learn a lot from social science research, from design principles and from user-centered design. The broader our consideration for this, the more deliberate we can be with our design decisions. If such consideration were always made, perhaps in the future I could tell the computer about my deadlines and it would prevent me from task switching. I like to think that Design can save me, one less distraction at a time.

Images by Steve Kay, cackhanded & Sorosh

This article is written as part of the Mozilla Design Labs Challenge: Summer 09. For this Design Challenge we are focusing on finding creative solutions to the question: “Reinventing Tabs in the Browser – How can we create, navigate and manage multiple web sites within the same browser instance?”

Janna DeVylder

Janna DeVylder is an Interaction Design Director at Arc Worldwide and President of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA).

7 comments on this article

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  2. Susan Isaacs on

    I am in favor of being saved from myself.

    My compulsion to multitask is alarming even to me. Right now for example: I am reading a book (while watching TV) but I decided to also check my twitter feed, so I’m reading this article, and now commenting…TV still on…book still in hand…

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  6. Alexandre Ribeiro on

    I’ve heard a funny and old fairy-tale about the day a duck, a sparrow , a dog and a fish were talking about how they could escape the next attack of the cougar.
    The dog said that he could run fast, the fish said that he could swin deep and the sparrow said that he could fly high.
    While the duck was piquing himself about beeing the only one who have all of that three abilities, the cougar suddenly attacked. The dog runned away, the fish swimmed deep and the sparrow flyed high.
    And the duck? He was very confused about which one of the three ways he could use to escape; the confusion become desperation, and he was so frightened that he couldn’t use anyone of his three abilities. And he was the cougar’s dinner…
    This may look like a silly tale, but shows that lacking on focus and trying to be ‘multitask’ everytime can make our daily routines ineffective.

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