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Don’t call us….

September 1st, 2003 · 1 Comment

Now you might think that this post is about the National Do Not Call registry , which begins in October (registration for Oct 1 ended yesterday, Aug 31) I did sign up with the registry, and I am happy for any chance to let telemarketers know not to call me…

But this instead started with Ted’s post last week Interruptions discussing an article in the August issue of Communications of the ACM . Curious, I went and got the journal off of Ted’s office floor and read “Understanding Email Interaction Increases Organizational Productivity”.

The article describes a study of the productivity cost of email, measuring efficiency and usage: 6 seconds average reaction time, 64 seconds recovery time.

Managing email isn’t much of a problem for me. I spend such a small proportion of my day at my desk and receive relatively little email. True, the location of my laptop in the kitchen makes it easy for me to check my mail and I probably do check it too often. But it is not as if I am writing programs or some other intense activity while on my machine. I check my email only if I have a moment to spare, such as while the kids are chewing on sandwich crusts, finishing their lunch.

What interested me most was the comparison to phone call interruption: “the recovery time after a phone call interruption is at least 15 minutes” – citing Peopleware . Ted had a copy of the book so I researched telephones more. To get in and out of flow, an intense, creative and productive work state, it was estimated that a phone call cost 15 minutes – not including the actual duration of the call itself. An entire chapter is dedicated to the problem of the telephone.

I remembered an article I read at least written by Donald Norman – author of The Design of Everyday Things – I think it may have been in Technology Review or another of Ted’s magazines, at least a few years ago. After reading it, my view of telephones changed forever. Norman asked why the phone was designed so that we are its slave, rather than it serving us. It rings randomly, without giving any other indication such as the caller (unless you have Caller ID nowadays) and demanding attention immediately: rude and distracting.

I couldn’t find the original article I read, but here’s another quote from him about the phone:

Think of the telephone, continually intruding upon conversations, insensitive to the ongoing activities, forcing interruptions through its demanding ring whether the time is convenient or not. So it is with most machines, shunning interaction except to demand attention. We call such behavior in people “spoiled,” “arrogant,” or “insensitive,” but somehow we have accepted it from our machines.

( Check out Norman’s recent essay on The Complexity of Every Day Life – glad I am not the only one who feels overwhelmed by daily life. I keep scribbling down things I keep forgetting to do – like care for the cars and change the furnace filter ….so why did we humans design our life to be so complicated – and design a telephone to interrupt what little we are trying to get done! )

Neither Ted nor I consider the phone to be our friend. The 15 minute cost of interruption is one big drawback for us both – especially for Ted as he works at home, but also for me, in moments when I am trying to finish a project with my limited resources. If I’m in the middle of a dirty diaper or cooking dinner, the phone can forget it! I also don’t like the phone for deep conversations because many non-verbal cues are lost, such as body language and context. And speaking off of the top of my head is sometimes difficult for me: words don’t come quickly to my tongue.

Although I appreciate the interaction with another adult and I do like to talk, it is very difficult for me to focus on phone calls while caring for three small mobile children. The other day while talking to a friend, my older two girls decided that their dollies needed baths and began splashing water around the sink and onto the floor. Yesterday, again while I was on the phone, Michaela stuck her hand into the bucket of green stain I was using to touch up spots on the house – and got some on her sister too. Adventures await me every time I use the phone. There are only a few times during the day when I find it “safe” to call – during breakfast or lunch when the girls are all eating at the table. Otherwise it’s too risky – especially now that Elisabeth can get around…

Email though is much more manageable. I can write when I want. I can even write it in bits and pieces, a minute here and there. I can send it early or late. Time of day doesn’t matter – unlike calls to a business or busy friend. Writing is easier for me than speaking: I feel I can communicate better by typing. There is more time to choose, fashion and even research a reply. The kids can be crying or laughing and the noise won’t have any effect, unlike a phone call. And, of course, the interruption cost is much less…

So don’t call us….we won’t call you….just send us email and we’ll reply 🙂

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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Mad Times // Sep 3, 2003 at 1:47 pm


    Donald Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things has an essay in progress on his web page entitled “The Complexity of Everyday Life” in which he ponders the proliferation of gadgetry and associated maintenance needs in our lives. And…