Ten years ago I compared information overload to the weather: everyone complains, but no one does anything about it. Well, I was wrong in one respect. Weather catastrophes have pushed climate change onto the center stage at many gatherings of global policy makers, but attempts to fix information overload don’t get any more attention.
Sure, new tools have emerged that promise to help us discover information of interest and save us time and frustration noticing the important stuff and not being bothered by the rest. But getting workers to switch to entirely new tools is difficult given their time constraints.
While email overload hasn’t declined, at least the tools have provided some options. You can switch to conversation view, apply handling rules automatically, and tag emails for later retrieval. It took a while for vendors and users to learn how increasing flows of content can be managed. So I’m flummoxed when I see new products that don’t seem to apply these hard-earned lessons.
Part of the reason vendors don’t prioritize “attention management” is that users are quick to get annoyed at poor attentional experience, but very slow to put it into words and demand improvements from vendors.
There are a lot of reasons that users don’t want to or cannot articulate AX frustrations:
- They’re embarrassed. They may come across as lazy, unable to be disciplined, or unfocused.
- Lack of consistent vocabulary to use for these problems or solutions. There are many words and phrases, overloaded with meaning depending on how deep you are in this field: information overload, interruptions, flow, info-stress, findability, attention management, etc. But I don’t think the average user has the words to describe the problem and solution in the way they can say “my water heater is leaking. I need a plumber to fix it”.
- They don’t recognize a particular root cause of the reason they miss a lot of important things going on in their information universe. Without being able to pinpoint the source of the problem, they don’t know what to fix.
- They don’t know who “owns” the problem and is responsible for fixing it. Is it the vendor of the tools? Their IT department who provides them? Their co-workers who overuse and abuse the communication channels provided? Or maybe they suspect they own the problem and should therefore stay quiet.
- They don’t know what they’re missing. In the case of useful information they weren’t aware of, they may not ever find out it was there.
- They won’t appreciate the noise reduction until it’s gone. Ever had the experience of wearing noise canceling headphones on a plane for a while before realizing you forgot to switch the noise canceling circuit on? You weren’t uncomfortable before, but once you flip that switch and the noise floor drops there is an instant “ahhh …” moment and you wonder how you tolerated the previous level of noise.
So waiting for users to coalesce on what they need and verbalize it consistently enough to earn a spot on product roadmaps will take way too long. Vendors have to recognize the symptoms themselves and act before the overload hits email-level proportions. I think it’s a matter of survival. Email has those capabilities in it and any new communication/collab tool has to do better to survive.
We’re hitting a point where there are already so many unused features in many mature product categories that adding yet another feature doesn’t have much impact. So refocusing on user experience may have better ROI than features that only appeal to a niche audience or use cases that will only be prevalent in the future.