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Designing for Multitasking

I'm a big fan of having something happening in the background while I'm focused on something else. Like having the tea kettle on while I unload the dishwasher. Even better is doing two things at once, one of which I might only vaguely be aware of. Like when I clean up my desk (and thus remove stuff from around the wireless antenna) and in doing so improve my wireless signal. We don't design for this enough. We're used to focusing on the task at hand. Perhaps overly focused.

We've been designing the equivalent of digital hammers--really nice hammers--that do the task at hand (hammering digital nails) but not much else. They don't recognize us or adapt to us at all, they just do the task when they could be multitasking: collecting data about how it's being used and by whom, adjusting itself to make it more personal and more useful. For most digital things, there's no sense of history and this is something that can be easily gathered. If every time I visit a web site, I go to the same page, chances are, I want to go to that page and the site or the browser should somehow acknowledge that, either by simply taking me there or in some way making it easier for me to get there.

Computers and other digital devices register (and often record) our behaviors like nothing else ever has, except perhaps for royal manservants. And yet, for the most part, they are dumb to the use of this data. Sure, the occasional site welcomes me back, but this is pretty rudimentary. Amazon got this right back in 1996, and despite its current cluttered pages, still gets some things right, like showing me where I've been recently. A couple of years ago, BBCi did that brilliant thing where as you returned to the site repeatedly, you "made a path" through the site.

An important point to make is that the onus wasn't on the user to do these things; the technology was what was smart and remembered. Both of these sites went the extra mile and did something more with the input they were getting in addition to just completing the task. They made completing the task in the future better, and that's something worth designing.

Originally posted at Monday, January 3, 2005 | Comments (2) | Trackback (1)

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