A picture of me standing at a lectern, working on a laptop computer, on the stage of the FWD50 digital government conference

Hi! I’m Alistair. I write surprisingly useful books, run unexpectedly interesting events, & build things humans need for the future.

Design for interruption

We used to design for the web. At first, this was just electronic print, but we realized it should be interactive; then personalized. Today, more people access the world through mobile devices. Designers are trying to teach clients that you can’t mouse-over or right-click on a tablet—and you can’t swipe well on a computer.

“Mobile first!” they cry.

Not so fast. Mobile devices aren’t consumption devices, they’re prosthetic brains. And that means they need to tell us when they have useful information (interruption); and answer our questions (contextual search).

This is the trend we see with Siri, as well as Google Now and Field Trip. Mobile design is partly smart memory (which knows, for example, that when you say “where’s a good sushi restaurant?” at 4PM it should find something nearby, perhaps that your friends have recommended, and within your price range.) And it’s partly smart interruption (which says, “you should leave now or you’ll miss your meeting” because it knows where you are, what’s on your calendar, and what traffic is like along your most likely route.”)

Techstars’ Brad Feld nailed this in a March, 2010 post entitled Email is still the best login, and Fred Wilson calls email social media’s secret weapon. Because email jumps into your lap. It interrupts you. Want to know why SMS is still popular? Because unlike many other messaging platforms, it always pushes itself onto your screen, vaulting past the gates of opt-out and commanding your attention.

But do it too often, or for unimportant reasons, and you’re the app that cried wolf. You need to be clever, knowing when to interrupt someone. After all, a spare brain that simply distracts your main one is a recipe for ADD. That’s why smart notification services like Prismatic use machine learning to mine your social graph and the things you discuss, sending you targeted reading lists.

Saying “mobile first” is wrong. Too often, that just means “make this web page work on a tablet.” Just as web designers who simply took offline documents and rendered them in HTML missed the point of the Web, so mobile designers that simply make the web work on a phone miss the point of mobility.

Mobile isn’t the point. Interruption is.

We don’t call interruption an interface, really. It’s almost an afterthought. Blackberry did it reasonably well with a small bar at the top of the screen; Android had a decent one from the start; Notification Center was slowly built into MacOS and IOS. But few companies design for “interruption first,” even though that’s how most of us engage with the services on which we’re most active.

Ask yourself: how often do you say, “I should go on Facebook”? And how often do you instead see “someone commented on your post” and start from there? The reality is that, in a mobile posture, we start by being interrupted. Services that interrupt well avoid disengagement, which is the worst thing that can happen to a startup.

Stop worrying about taps, screens, or swipes. And start worrying about how to interrupt your users well.

Sidenote: My co-author Ben Yoskovitz and I have been writing about this stuff, and how to measure it, in our forthcoming book, Lean Analytics. We’re learning a lot.

The book is part of O’Reilly’s early release program, which means you can buy it now and get updates as we finish it off. Right now we’re up to 150 pages. If you want to buy a copy, you can do so here.






6 responses to “Design for interruption”

  1. […] The biggest mistake in mobile these days, is buying into the “Mobile First” myth. That just means “make this web page work on a tablet,” he recently argued on his blog, “Solve For Interesting.” […]

  2. Mike Suarez Avatar
    Mike Suarez

    Thanks Alistair. Just bought your book. Where do GAMES fit into your thoughts about interruption? It would appear that while they too have their own interruption mechanisms, they are the exception to your consumption vs. brain extender theory. Games are definitely CONSUMED on mobile.

    1. Alistair Avatar

      Well, there are games like Puzzlecraft that remind you when you’ve got new resources, so that’s interruption. But you’re right—interruption as I explained it is primarily about utility. I guess for gaming it would be about appropriateness, i.e. when is it appropriate to be gaming. If you’re playing an augmented reality game of some kind (admittedly a bit in the future) it will need context to figure out when to recede into the background.

      For the gaming business model (something we talk about a lot in Lean Analytics the main function of interruption is to maximize engagement. If you look at tools for teaching language, they build a model of your acquisition over time and remind you of words just as you’re about to forget them. Similarly, there is probably a “right” time to trigger a player’s inner skinner box to maximize engagement. The ethics of that sort of thing are left to the reader. 😉

  3. […] of economic justice. Digital technologies enable more efficient techniques, and experts even encourage marketers to “design for interruption.” Facebook, iPhones, and Google Glass exemplify such […]

  4. […] The biggest mistake in mobile these days, is buying into the “Mobile First” myth. That just means “make this web page work on a tablet,” he recently argued on his blog, “Solve For Interesting.” […]

  5. […] With Life Resource Planning a ubiquitous reality, we’ll finally be ready for personal agents. Already Google Now, Siri, and Cortana are shifting how we use information from responsive to anticipatory, interrupting us wisely. […]