Blog post

From UX to AX (Attentional Experience)

By Craig Roth | January 14, 2011 | 1 Comment

Attention Management

I’m introducing a term which called “attentional experience” or AX.  To understand AX, you have to first understand its parent, user experience (UX).  Back when I was programming we didn’t have UX yet – it was “human factors”.  This was a novel new angle on user interface design, which focused on the best wording, layout, and functionality but was vague as to how much the user played into these decisions.  Human factors introduced the way people process visual information into the equation.  User experience (UX) then came along, which connects the system-to-human loop by applying experience design, which teaches that design only matters if it improves the experience of the user.

But my ongoing development of the Enterprise Attention Management concept has revealed the need for concrete ways to improve the attentional capabilities of information workers.  One place where the rubber hits the virtual road is in the interfaces of the applications those workers use.  An application’s work is not done when it simply has information of use to a user.  Its designers have to consider how that information will be brought to the user’s attention, with consideration of its importance to that user and an understanding of the user’s overall information environment and preferences.  That is the AX challenge.

Here is a starter set of tenets for AX:

  • A system should do what it can to understand the user’s interests and pull important information forward (e.g., showing it on a personalized homepage) while pushing less important information back (e.g., not making it appear on a homepage) [in bold since this is the prime directive of AX]
  • A system should be able to anticipate and deliver both a “fire hose” of information for its users (e.g., aggregation capabilities, drill down browsing, saved searches, socially generated and shared filters) or rare drips (e.g., notification through other applications for those users who will rarely get useful information from the system but on rare occasions need to be pointed to certain data)
  • A system should be able to be either an aggregator of information from other sources (so task switching is not required to quickly provide relevant information) or a provider of information to other aggregation systems, based on the preference of the user or system designer
  • A system should make sure its information is findable, sharable, and subscribe-able from external systems (e.g., search)
  • Rather than a fixed delivery mechanism, a system should be able to deliver information across several communication channels depending its importance to the user at any particular time (e.g., SMS message for something important while the user is out of the office, on the user’s personalized intranet homepage, emailed for moderately important information, filed in a repository for users that won’t find it as important, via RSS for users who prefer using feed readers).  Note this is not about making all these channels available as options, but having the system actually select the appropriate channel for each message and user at each point in time.
  • Users should be able to see why a message was delivered in a particular channel and correct the path in in the future if necessary (i.e., no “black box” algorithms)

AX doesn’t replace UX.  And I’m not saying that UX misses the point, like UX did to UI design.  Instead, part of AX is a subset of UX that acknowledges the role of the overall information stream (or flood in some cases) and user’s ability to notice and consume information in determining the quality of user experience.  AX can applied at the level of a single function in an application, a single website, or the broader information environment of a role in an organization and all the messages that various systems fire at them. 

I said “part of UX” because there is a part that doesn’t have to do with the user’s experience.  The ultimate goal of AX is not really the user’s happiness or the quality of their experience, but rather their effectiveness related to business goals.  AX should improve the quality and timeliness of decision making and a good attentional experience will allow information workers to do that.  A business whose users don’t notice important information or waste time with unimportant information are disadvantaged even if the individual user’s experience is fantastic. 

Although getting laid off because you were too overloaded to notice important information in your systems would certainly be a bad experience!

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1 Comment

  • milan says:

    It seems to me anyone doing Information Architecture for personalised portals or similar projects has been doing AX for a long time – what is interesting about that approach is how it converges with Business Rules to get the right information to the right people in the right moment, format and context, and how to do this across several media and delivery channels.