Distraction vs. Inspiration

Table of contents

Have you checked your notifications on your smart watch? Was that your phone vibrating in your pocket? We are constantly distracted by our digital companions.

Oh look!
A three headed monkey!

monkey island

Look at me!

Being distracted by a system is a result of motivation design gone wrong. The designer of said system envisioned the user as being readily available for engagement. This seems completely normal to us today, as the behavior of switching attention to our digital devices on demand, has been learned for a long time.

For me it all started with the doorbell, that anybody passerby could use, no matter the state the homeowner was in (preferrably sweatpants or worse). Today, we are constantly distracted by attention grabbing mobile devices and wearables.

The result is, that users are becoming numb. We are turning off the system or as a worst case we are distracted and ignore reality (e.g., while driving or in a social situation).

Why are we distracted?

Reasons for this are WHEN WHAT HOW:

WHEN: Infrequent information flow

We are getting information in a chaotic cadence. This leaves the individual unable to plan for this information influx (contrary to watching a tv broadcast).

We are being disturbed at the worst moments 🏎 and are feeling left without any news, when it really matters 🧻.

WHAT: Relevance of Information

How relevant the information is, is to be determined algorithmically by the sender, often in advance and in complete ignorance of any information about the receiver and their situation. This leads to information being irrelevant in the first place (e.g., ads) or being irrelevant “at the moment” (e.g., smarthome update information on window shade position during worship in church).

HOW: Information Channel

Instead of requesting an update, users are receiving the information whether they like it or not. This technology originated in MS Exchange E-Mail notifications and is now applied to a wide variety of communication. Think about it. We are expecting the designers to know better than the user, how information is presented. Upon returning to an app? Upon unlocking the device? On demand? Push? We should give users options to change the information channel based on their preference.

What’s inspirational interaction like?

Ever heard the phrase “kissed by the muse”? It refers to inspiration, but the term “muse” is also used for people, who acting as such.

With human interaction, we are experiencing inspiration. Quite often then it is the opposite to human machine interaction. We expect our conversation partner to surprise us with new information or new ways of presenting it.

It is what is generally considered “good conversion”. We call a slight irritation due to new information or ways of presenting it “interesting”, “challenging” or “inspiring” and we are driven towards other humans, who are providing this kind of experience to us and even better, if we this is a shared feeling.

WHEN We choose when to engage.

Even if only one party has chosen to meet up with the other individual, it is socially acceptable (although not in all circumstances) to decline the interaction. Depending on the form of communication, we can choose when (sometimes even if) to engage.

WHAT We negotiate complexity.

During conversation between individuals, it is common practice to constantly negotiate if information is interesting (right now) or not. Sometimes it is generally not wanted, other times it is just a question of the right moment, style or level of complexity. I consider it a basic requirement of meaningful conversation to agree about the importance of the topic and thus on what the conversation is about.

HOW We choose our form of communication

With other individuals it is ok to say no to a certain form of communication but exercise another. And usually we choose a form, that fits the relationship with that human. Some are pen pals, some are calling regularly and with others we engage on any level, because we seek their company and a very intimate relationship.


When designing experiences (e.g. apps or more interactive experiences) we should consider the WHEN, WHAT and HOW. We are expected to provide smart experiences on our smart devices. I cannot consider interaction, that is not informed, negotiated or controlled by the user as smart. If you want to know more, you might want to continue reading on human aware design.