paying attention to attention

30 August 2006 (Wednesday)

Tried out a recent version of Touchstone briefly and although it’s got lots of interesting ideas (and quite a bit of implementation as well), it won’t yet work for me until it has a few key features – technically, the ability to work with https-delivered and authenticated feeds are mandatory for the way I subscribe to feeds now, and from a interaction point of view the ability to manually segment (or mark up) feeds (on subscription) into different types with different attention-management heuristics – news, events and alerts…

The kind of usage scenario I have in mind for touchstone (and I think this usage may be relevant to others out there as well) that requires https and authentication is that both from soda requirements and individually I end up using a lot of online applications which deliver rss feeds (our soda & public journals, trac, cruisecontrol, “writeboards” (37signals), online calendars, other random wikis, to-do lists, etc). Quite a few of these feeds are authenticated and served via https. (There are probably more applications, such as server-monitoring etc that could be configured to have rss, or some form of alert (maybe push, rather than pull) – I can see that touchstone’s technology agnosticism could be a real benefit here. It’s worth looking into some of the discussion around ”continuous integration” as well, as there are some quite interesting attention management devices that are proposed (and already tied in to cruisecontrol (for example) as well,))

I additionally have subscribed to public (blogosphere sytle) feeds but for me the use of rss for the more core parts of my work make these additional feeds act as noise to my signals – the problem with most feedreaders I’ve tried (and I’ve tried quite a few) is that once you have cut out the ones that either don’t support https, or don’t support authentication (or just as bad, can’t cache it beyond the session), then you are left with ones that have no means of discriminating between important information from trivia.

The interesting thing about feeds (rss2/atom or whatever) is that (like http and html before it) it is such an open technology that it is being used for categorically different kinds of information. What I want from an “attention management system” is the ability to descriminate between radically different sorts of incoming “news” from feeds. I see them as broadly splitting into three different kinds of demands on my attention, and I would have a demand to configure the kinds of rules that might operate on these categories as well as the diferent ways in which these might demand attention.

  • News: (items and views from the blogosphere) from to read if you have time – would be good to have a way to bubble up things based on AI heuristics, because losing things is less important.
  • Events: stuff to be aware of (e.g. changes to projects I’m working on – the key thing here is to see the amount of change going through – a head up display as per touchstone or the typical pop-up messages of other feed readers).
  • Alerts: stuff you need to consciously dismiss (reminders from to do lists are like this, calendar events).

For me – I want to have an indication of the number of news items have arrived since I last browsed them, and similarly for events (as well as their pop up). In particular I would be quite worried by a system that believed it could determine the KIND of attention (rather than the prioirity) of attention that a particular item should have from AI-like heuristics alone.

Also, if you read about research done a few years ago on the use of email applications as a “habitat” for living and working in (I’m thinking here of Deucheneaut & Bellotti’s article “Email as a habitat”) then you find that people were fairly carefully modulating their use of their (by then, familiar) email environment and not simply doing the actions which would result in having a minimum number of keystrokes (in that article she highlights rather nicely on the modulation between searching and filing/browsing) . I think there’s a similar habitat waiting to built for the less-direct/personal form of media that that rss (and news & maillists as well) represent. It strikes me that there is a new habitat needed for the burgeoning field of impersonal pull-(or subscription-based) media – in the past managed more or less successfully within the email habitat, but more and more (with the rise of feeds-with-everything), a totally separate ecological niche is being formed. I would argue strongly however that despite the immense power and motivation given from the blogosphere’s use of rss, that this niche is much wider than merely about managing news&views subscriptions. Touchstone might provide a contender for this current ecological niche, but they will have to pay careful attention to the different kinds of attention that are needed on categorically different items.

As a rider to this, though, I would say that the idea of building an “attention management system” (or just paying attention to attention at all) on top of the current windows platform is an uphill struggle, given the kinds of attention-management problems there are built in (from the structural issues that allow an alert dialog from another application can steal your application focus (your manifest “attention”) along to the more subtle issues on the manner of “You seem to be writing a letter…”).


2 Responses to “paying attention to attention”

  1. Chris Saad Says:

    Hi again Tim – just letting you know the Beta now supports HTTPS


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