Josh's INET independent study, Spring 2006

My semester-long journal guiding all my readers through the independent study I am doing as part of the Internet Studies minor with Professor Hickey at Brandeis.

Name:
Location: Waltham, Massachusetts, United States

March 30, 2006

How Distracting are IMs?

Instant Messaging: Effects of Relevance and Timing

The purpose of this article is to determine just how distracting IMs can be to someone who is trying to accomplish various tasks on the computer. After reviewing the main benefits of IMing (seeing when personal contacts are available, instantaneous communication, and being capable of holding multiple conversations at once), the article focuses on a study of certain people's reactions to IM disruptions.

The first experiment was to show at which point in a task people are the most disrupted. During this experiment, participants were given the task of looking at stock prices and deciding if/when to sell the stocks. The only catch was that they would receive IMs randomly throughout this task, either while beginning the task, accessing tools, or manipulating the content of their files. In the end, the results showed that people were faster at disengaging from the task at hand when the IM came during its early stages rather than during the intermediate and finishing stages. It was found that once a task had been started, it then required a lot more focus and the people were not going to let an IM distract them.

The second experiment was similar. It involved people trying to accomplish some computer task that included three phases: planning, execution, and evaluation. The IMs that would eventually pop up on their screens were either relevant or irrelevant to the task at hand and could appear during any of those afforementioned phases. What became evident as a result of this experiment was that the irrelevant IMs took people longer to process, and therefore made it harder for the workers to get back to their original task after the interruption occurred.

The results of the second experiment support those from the first one. If a worker is to have an IM (or more than one) sent to him while working, it will be more disruptive if it is at the very beginning of the task because he/she will not yet be fully engaged in it. While it was found that receiving IMs relevant to work are less distracting, the experiments still revealed that people will most likely end up ignoring irrelevant IMs when they are in the middle of an assignment, which I suppose is good news for most companies out there.

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