Slow Down, Multitaskers; Don’t Read in Traffic

March 25, 2007 


Confident multitaskers of the world, could I have your attention?

Think you can juggle phone calls, e-mail, instant messages and computer work to get more done in a time-starved world? Read on, preferably shutting out the cacophony of digital devices for a while.

Several research reports, both recently published and not yet published, provide evidence of the limits of multitasking. The findings, according to neuroscientists, psychologists and management professors, suggest that many people would be wise to curb their multitasking behavior when working in an office, studying or driving a car.

These experts have some basic advice. Check e-mail messages once an hour, at most. Listening to soothing background music while studying may improve concentration. But other distractions — most songs with lyrics, instant messaging, television shows — hamper performance. Driving while talking on a cellphone, even with a hands-free headset, is a bad idea.

In short, the answer appears to lie in managing the technology, instead of merely yielding to its incessant tug.

“Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes,” said David E. Meyer, a cognitive scientist and director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan. “Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.”

The human brain, with its hundred billion neurons and hundreds of trillions of synaptic connections, is a cognitive powerhouse in many ways. “But a core limitation is an inability to concentrate on two things at once,” said René Marois, a neuroscientist and director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt University.

Mr. Marois and three other Vanderbilt researchers reported in an article last December in the journal Neuron that they used magnetic resonance imaging to pinpoint the bottleneck in the brain and to measure how much efficiency is lost when trying to handle two tasks at once.

Study participants were given two tasks and were asked to respond to sounds and images. The first was to press the correct key on a computer keyboard after hearing one of eight sounds. The other task was to speak the correct vowel after seeing one of eight images.

The researchers said that they did not see a delay if the participants were given the tasks one at a time. But the researchers found that response to the second task was delayed by up to a second when the study participants were given the two tasks at about the same time.

In many daily tasks, of course, a lost second is unimportant. But one implication of the Vanderbilt research, Mr. Marois said, is that talking on a cellphone while driving a car is dangerous. A one-second delay in response time at 60 miles an hour could be fatal, he noted.

“We are under the impression that we have this brain that can do more than it often can,” observed Mr. Marois, who said he turns off his cellphone when driving.

The young, according to conventional wisdom, are the most adept multitaskers. Just look at teenagers and young workers in their 20s, e-mailing, instant messaging and listening to iPods at once.

Recently completed research at the Institute for the Future of the Mind at Oxford University suggests the popular perception is open to question. A group of 18- to 21-year-olds and a group of 35- to 39-year-olds were given 90 seconds to translate images into numbers, using a simple code.

The younger group did 10 percent better when not interrupted. But when both groups were interrupted by a phone call, a cellphone short-text message or an instant message, the older group matched the younger group in speed and accuracy.

“The older people think more slowly, but they have a faster fluid intelligence, so they are better able to block out interruptions and choose what to focus on,” said Martin Westwell, deputy director of the institute.

Mr. Westwell is 36, and thus, should be better able to cope with interruptions. But he has modified his work habits since completing the research project last month.

“I check my e-mail much less often,” he said. “The interruptions really can throw you off-track.”

In a recent study, a group of Microsoft workers took, on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks, like writing reports or computer code, after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages. They strayed off to reply to other messages or browse news, sports or entertainment Web sites.

“I was surprised by how easily people were distracted and how long it took them to get back to the task,” said Eric Horvitz, a Microsoft research scientist and co-author, with Shamsi Iqbal of the University of Illinois, of a paper on the study that will be presented next month.

“If it’s this bad at Microsoft,” Mr. Horvitz added, “it has to be bad at other companies, too.”

In the computer age, technology has been seen not only as a factor contributing to information overload but also as a tool for coping with it. Computers can help people juggle workloads, according a paper presented this month at a conference at the National Bureau of Economic Research. The researchers scrutinized the work at an unnamed executive recruiting firm, including projects and 125,000 e-mail messages. They also examined the firm revenues, people’s compensation and the use of information technology by the recruiters.

The recruiters who were the heaviest users of e-mail and the firm’s specialized database were the most productive in completing projects. “You can use the technology to supplement your brain and keep track of more things,” said Erik Brynjolfsson of the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a co-author of the paper, along with Sinan Aral of the Stern School of Business at New York University, and Marshall Van Alstyne of Boston University.

But the paper also found that “beyond an optimum, more multitasking is associated with declining project completion rates and revenue generation.”

For the executive recruiters, the optimum workload was four to six projects, taking two to five months each.

The productivity lost by overtaxed multitaskers cannot be measured precisely, but it is probably a lot. Jonathan B. Spira, chief analyst at Basex, a business-research firm, estimates the cost of interruptions to the American economy at nearly $650 billion a year.

That total is an update of research published 18 months ago, based on surveys and interviews with professionals and office workers, which concluded that 28 percent of their time was spent on what they deemed interruptions and recovery time before they returned to their main tasks.

Mr. Spira concedes that the $650 billion figure is a rough estimate — an attempt to attach a number to a big problem. Work interruptions will never — and should not — be eliminated, he said, since they are often how work is done and ideas are shared. After all, one person’s interruption is another’s collaboration.

The information age is really only a decade or two old in the sense of most people working and communicating on digital devices all day, Mr. Spira said. In the industrial era, it took roughly a century until Frederick Winslow Taylor in 1911 published his principles of “scientific management” for increasing worker productivity.

“We don’t have any equivalent yet for the knowledge economy,” Mr. Spira said.

But university and corporate researchers say they can help. Brain scans, social networking algorithms and other new tools should help provide a deeper understanding of the limits and the potential of the human brain, they said. That will teach workers in groups how to manage the overload of digital communications efficiently.

A new organization, the Institute for Innovation and Information Productivity, whose sponsors include Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Johnson & Johnson, has been created to sponsor such research. It provided money for the recent research project at Oxford’s Institute for the Future of the Mind, for example.

Further research could help create clever technology, like sensors or smart software that workers could instruct with their preferences and priorities to serve as a high-tech “time nanny” to ease the modern multitasker’s plight.

That is what Mr. Horvitz of Microsoft is working on. “We live in this Wild West of digital communications now,” he said. “But I think there’s a lot of hope for the future.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company 

Web Apps 101: Your Three Point Success Plan


Ryan Carson

Building a web app is easy. Building a successful and profitable web app is where most people fail.
In this new series of articles, I will share valuable strategies and tips for building successful web apps. I’ll be covering everything from powerful marketing strategies, how to build a quality team, tips for great customer support and finally, exit strategies.

Building a web app is no different than launching any other product – it needs to be backed by solid business principles. You’ll need funding, a real audience, a solid monetization model, a marketing plan, quality support, and good project management.

The three vital questions: If you want your app to stay out of the Dead Pool, you need to know the answer the following questions:
Who is it aimed at?
Why will they use it?
Will they pay for it?

#1 – Who is it aimed at?
Before you spend any time or resources, it’s vital to know exactly who your app is aimed at. Small business owners? Stay-at-home dads? Spanish speakers? Males under 30? It doesn’t matter, so long as you know who they are.
I believe that some of the best apps come from meeting your own needs. If you ever catch yourself thinking, “Wow, I sure could use …” then it might be a brilliant web app opportunity.
However, if you are not the target user of your web app, proceed with extreme caution. It’s incredibly easy to make faulty assumptions about your audience’s needs or wants. Remember that you’re an early-adopter and way more technically advanced than your average person. In many cases, 90% of your customers will think “The Internet” is the blue “e” icon on their desktop.

#2 – Why will they use it?

You may have an amazing idea. Maybe it’s going to help busy mothers organize their shopping list. Sweet. But do busy moms actually need that? Do they even want it?
Here’s some free market research you can do to determine if people will use your app:
Ask people that you trust. What’s their first reaction?
Search for terms that are related to your idea. If there’s a lot of online activity about it, you’ve got a good chance (and you’ll probably have competitors to deal with).
Make sure it’s practical. Imagine someone actually using the app. If anything seems awkward about the actual use of it, be very careful about proceeding.
Interact with your potential customers. Talk to them, hang out with them, participate in their online forums – get them to tell you what they need.
Making sure there’s a real need for your app is the most important thing before plowing your hard earned time and money into a project.

#3 – Will they pay for it?

This is where the rubber meets the road. You can be zeroed in on your target customers and know they desperately need the app, but if they won’t pay for the dang thing, you’re in trouble.
This is a useful test: close your eyes and imagine you’re one of your potential customers. Walk yourself through their typical day, from when they wake up, to the point where they come across your web app.
Imagine they make it to your “Pricing & Signup” page. Will they be so convinced they need your service that they’ll actually drag out their wallet and enter in all their details? If so, what will they be willing to pay?
If your app is aimed at business owners, they’ll be able to afford spending $49 to $99 per month. If your app is aimed at 15 year old kids, you’d better find an advertising monetization model.
Going the free route
If you’re building an app that is completely free to use (YouTube and digg are great examples) you typically have two options for monetization:


You should never plan on being acquired. Remember that getting bought for $1.65B (or even $5M) just isn’t likely for 99.9% of web apps. Profitability should be your #1 goal.
You need to have a viable and serious plan for profitability. If you get acquired, great. Just don’t plan on it.
Now for Option #1 – Advertising. It’s a great monetization strategy, providing that you have a solid plan for selling the inventory.
There are three options for selling advertising:
Use advertising networks (Federated Media, Right Media, etc)
Hire an advertising sales team
Use a product like Google AdSense
Ad networks are brilliant because they take all the hard work out of selling ads. It comes at a steep price though – you’ll usually only get 60% or less of the ad revenue.
The next option, hiring your own ad-sales team, is a proven way to get your ad inventory sold … but it’s going to be damn expensive. You’ll typically be looking at paying a basic salary of $20K plus commission for each salesmen.
If you don’t have the cash for a full ad-sales team, here’s how to do it on a budget: See if you can find any friends who are already doing ad-sales and ask if they can do a bit of work on the side for you. They could be paid on commission, so there’s no financial risk to you.
The last option, using a product like AdSense, is only a possibility if your web app is going to receive a very large amount of traffic and is largely content based (Google needs to be able to parse text to offer relevant ads).
Pricing – hitting the sweet spot
If you do decide to charge for your app, determining your prices will be tough.
Every web app builder agonizes over pricing. Should you have a monthly or one time fee? Should you offer a free plan? Should you monetize with ads?
As an example, CrazyEgg and Flickr have two very different pricing strategies.
flickr-crazyegg.gifHere are some practical tips for determining your pricing model:
Ask folks who know your target market. They’ll help you determine how much disposable income they have to spend on your idea.
Use a spreadsheet to experiment with your figures and determine where you achieve profibility. I’ve created a straightforward Excel spreadsheet that will allow you to play with different pricing plan numbers and observe the effect on your profit. It’s simple, but it should give you a general guideline.
If you’re going to monetize with ads, make sure you have a way to sell these ads. You will probably need a fulltime ad-sales person. Don’t expect to just slap on some Google Ads and become profitable.
Use promotion codes to get users to upgrade from free to paying plans. Whenever we offer DropSend users 50% off their first month, we see a huge amount of upgrades.
The best advice I ever got on pricing was from Jason Fried of 37signals. I ran our pricing structure by him and he had a quick think. After a moment or two he said “Make sure your free plan doesn’t give away too much. Because if no one upgrades, you’re in trouble.”
If you decide to offer a free plan, only give your users a taste to get them hungry.
I’ve decided to share the percentage breakdown of paying users for DropSend so that you can see a real-world example:
$5/mo plan: 13% of total revenue
$9/mo plan: 17% of total revenue
$19/mo plan: 20% of total revenue
$99/mo plan: 50% of total revenue
So are you financially viable?
If you were able to able to answer the three vital questions and you’ve chosen a monetization model that puts your cash flow spreadsheet in the black, then you’ve got a damn good chance of surviving and becoming profitable.
Please feel free to share any lessons you’ve learned while building your web app or challenge some of the points I’ve made.
Next time …
In the next installment of Web Apps 101, I’ll share valuable tips on funding your app, building a successful team and project management.
This post was written by Ryan Carson, the Director of Carson Systems, a web application and event company based in England.

© 2007 TechCrunch

Full-colour glow-in-the-dark materials unveiled

17:37 13 March 2007 news service
Tom Simonite

Glow-in-the-dark materials that shine with the whole range of visible colours, and can even produce white light, have been developed by Japanese researchers.

The team from Ryukoku University, Kyoto, say they can be used to provide lighting and clearly readable signs in emergencies without the need for electricity.

Using glow-in-the-dark – or phosphorescent – materials in this way is rare. But the International Commission on Illumination (CIE), the international authority on lighting, has suggested buildings be fitted with emergency lighting and signs that work without power as standard.

New York and Tokyo are considering the idea, says one of the researchers, Mitsunori Saito. He thinks the new material’s ability to emit light across the whole visible spectrum makes glow-in-the-dark emergency lighting more attractive.

Time matters

“Conventional blue or green phosphors create an eerily uncomfortable illumination environment in which people feel anxiety,” Saito explains. They also give poor contrast when used for signs which is a problem when people need to find exits through heavy smoke or dust, he says.

Warmer colours like orange and red will produce more legible signs. “Combining red, green, and blue colours even enables us to create white light, which may provide more natural illumination,” Saito says.

Phosphorescent materials absorb energy when exposed to light and emit that energy as light again over long time periods.

Good blue and green phosphorescent compounds have been around for some time but until now red ones lasted minutes instead of hours. Saito and colleagues Naoki Adachi and Hiroyasu Kondo got around this by adding red dye to green and blue phosphors.

Seeing red

The dye molecules absorb light emitted by the base phosphor and emit red light of their own. Mixing the red dye in different proportions with green or blue phosphors makes it possible to produce the full range of visible colours.

Adding the dye does not change the efficiency of the phosphors noticeably, the researchers claim. A 5-minute charge from a fluorescent lamp is enough to make them glow for about three hours.

“Using glow-in-the-dark is not a current strategy for emergency lighting,” says Roy Webb at Heriot-Watt University, UK, “but I can see the appeal,” he says. Emergency lighting does not need to be very bright because the human eye adapts well to dim conditions, he points out.

But Webb added that the specific benefits of having more colours would need proper testing.

The Japanese team are also exploring less serious uses for their technology. One company is developing a night-light lamp shade that shines all night.

Journal reference: Optics Express (vol 15, p 1621)