Making the most of micro-moments with Dr. Shamsi Iqbal
Episode 79, June 5, 2019
If you’ve recently found it more difficult to focus your attention for a lengthy stretch of time in order to get a complex task done… or worse, found it difficult even to find a lengthy stretch of time in which to try, you’re not alone. And actually, you’re in luck. Dr. Shamsi Iqbal, a senior researcher in the Information and Data Sciences group at Microsoft Research, wants to help you manage your attention better and be more productive at the same time. And she’s using technology to do it!
On today’s podcast, Dr. Iqbal tells us about her work in the field of micro-productivity, a line of research that takes aim at the short spurts of time she calls micro-moments that we otherwise might have considered too short to get anything useful done. She also explains why distraction can be good for us and gives us some advice on how to make the most of our cognitive resources, whether by setting aside time to tackle big tasks in the traditional way or by breaking them down into micro-tasks… and “outsourcing” them to ourselves!
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Shamsi Iqbal: The traditional way of doing things is that you set aside chunks of time, and you get focused and get things done. And that’s how all of our tasks are designed. And that would work, except for the fact that just finding that chunk of time to focus is difficult. What we do have is these little bits and pieces of moments. They’re scattered throughout the day. And we said, what if we de-frag all of those moments, and we get something substantial done? The idea is that you take a task, you break it down into smaller chunks. And then you can kind of scatter those tasks throughout your day.
Host: You’re listening to the Microsoft Research Podcast, a show that brings you closer to the cutting-edge of technology research and the scientists behind it. I’m your host, Gretchen Huizinga.
Host: If you’ve recently found it more difficult to focus your attention for a lengthy stretch of time in order to get a complex task done… or worse, found it difficult even to find a lengthy stretch of time in which to try, you’re not alone. And actually, you’re in luck. Dr. Shamsi Iqbal, a senior researcher in the Information and Data Sciences group at Microsoft Research, wants to help you manage your attention better and be more productive at the same time. And she’s using technology to do it!
On today’s podcast, Dr. Iqbal tells us about her work in the field of micro-productivity, a line of research that takes aim at the short spurts of time she calls micro-moments that we otherwise might have considered too short to get anything useful done. She also explains why distraction can be good for us and gives us some advice on how to make the most of our cognitive resources, whether by setting aside time to tackle big tasks in the traditional way or by breaking them down into micro-tasks… and “outsourcing” them to ourselves! That and much more on this episode of the Microsoft Research Podcast.
Host: Shamsi Iqbal, welcome to the podcast!
Shamsi Iqbal: Thank you.
Host: As a senior researcher in the Information and Data Sciences group at Microsoft Research, your work revolves around attention management for multitasking domains. I’m intrigued already. In general, because we’ll get specific in a second, give us a little more detail about the work you do and why you do it. What gets you up in the morning?
Shamsi Iqbal: Well, that’s a fun topic to talk about. I get up in the morning mentally reciting all the things that I need to do that day, as probably most of us do. The fun part is that that’s exactly what I get to do for my research and basically what I look at is, how can we help people better manage their attention in a situation where they’re dealing with multiple interruptions that are coming from many competing entities.
Shamsi Iqbal: You know what the fun part is? Is whenever I talk about this research with someone, they get it! It resonates with them and they come to me and say, oh yeah! How can your research help me be more productive and manage my attention better? So, there’s a lot of pressure to get it right!
Host: Are you a list person?
Shamsi Iqbal: No. Not really.
Host: Is it all in your head?
Shamsi Iqbal: Yeah, that’s where the problem is. And so, when I say not really, it’s something that I’m forcing myself to do, and I find it to be more useful than before. And what I’ve actually started doing is not only putting it down on a piece of paper, I have started putting it on my whiteboard at work so that it’s not only me who looks at it, it’s other people, and it’s some kind of accountability that if I don’t have it crossed off for a long time, someone is going to come and point it out. Oh, yeah! You had this thing on the whiteboard that said, well, review this paper in November and it’s now May and you haven’t reviewed this paper!
Host: Well, I want to start out by talking about a couple of buzz words that seem to pervade the literature in your research area, and first let’s zoom in on multi-tasking for a second. I’ve read papers, especially a famous one by Cliff Nass at Stanford that says there’s actually no such thing as multitasking. What we’re actually doing is task-slicing or task-switching. And I’m sure there’s camps here, or nuance maybe is a better word, but give us your take on multitasking since that’s sort of the focus of your research. How does how we think about this affect what we do about it?
Shamsi Iqbal: Well, there are two schools of thought here and I’m going to channel theories from psychology and, more specifically, theories of cognition. So, there is one definition that says exactly what you said, is that people are not doing things in parallel, they’re doing things serially and what is happening is that they’re very rapidly switching their attention. And this is from the idea of single channel theory. So, you have this pot of cognitive resources and whenever you’re doing a task, you’re dipping into that pot and you are switching back and forth between tasks and so you are basically putting in resources and getting them out of it. Now, there is also a less restrictive theory called multiple resources theory where you have different pots. So, you might have a pot for your auditory resources. You’ll have a pot for your visual resources. And, in that case, you’re able to do things in parallel when your tasks demand different types of resources. So, you might be able to do a visual task and an auditory task at the same time because they’re dipping into separate pots. Now, the problem is that most of our tasks are not strictly auditory or strictly visual, so that’s where the conflicts start coming in. There’s also the automaticity theory, so where things are so automatic for you is that you really don’t need to put in a lot of conscious thought into it and those happen without you really needing a lot of cognitive resources.
Host: Like driving…
Shamsi Iqbal: Exactly.
Host: …and you end up some place and you don’t remember how you got there.
Shamsi Iqbal: Yes. That is kind of dangerous but think about things like, we walk and talk at the same time, right? So, we’re not thinking about how to walk because that’s so ingrained in us, so we can just basically walk and keep on talking without any performance degradation in either of those tasks. But from a more practical point of view, when you talk about multitasking in the real world, we are essentially talking about serial tasking and we are rapidly switching our attention across those tasks.
Host: Mm-hmm. Well, so drilling in a little bit there, this idea of you can’t do multiple things at once and we know actually you can because, like you mentioned, walk and talk or you know you’re stirring something in your kitchen and listening to something. So, it’s all these multi-sensory things that are happening. However, moving over to the kind of current classic definition of multi-tasking is the kid who says, “I can do my homework and be Snapchatting at the same time.”
Shamsi Iqbal: You can’t. I mean, you might be able to; you’re not going to be able to do quality work on either of those.
Host: I’m glad to know that because I can’t do that and I always thought if somebody else could, what do they have that I don’t have? Nothing.
Shamsi Iqbal: It’s just impossible.
Host: All right, so every time your kid tells you, I can do this all at the same time, you say, research says you can’t.
Shamsi Iqbal: Yeah, there you go.
Host: Shamsi says you can’t.
Shamsi Iqbal: I wish I could tell that to my kids.
Host: Well, let’s talk about another buzz word which is “fragmentation” and in some of our conversations I’ve heard you use the phrase “de-frag.” On my very first podcast, my guest was Jaime Teevan, and I asked her this question, and I’d like to ask you too. Same question: Why do you think things are so fragmented today and how is it different from what we might call bad attention spans in previous eras? Is it different?
Shamsi Iqbal: That’s a good question. So, the way that I think of fragmentation is, it’s the consequences of us wanting to do multiple things at the same time. So essentially, what is happening is that we want to be able to focus on one thing but there’s so many external things that are demanding our attention that we end up with having these little fragments of attention. And so that’s basically what fragmented attention is. It’s not necessarily a bad thing but we are in this odd space where we are trying to get tasks done that are designed for focused attention and all we have, in most of the cases, is these little bits of pieces of attentional fragments.
Host: Is there any literature on fragmentation prior to this era of high-tech distraction?
Shamsi Iqbal: So, psychology literature has been looking at attention for many, many years…
Shamsi Iqbal: …and there’s not only the high-tech distraction, or the external distraction, there’s also the self-distraction. So where we are having difficulties in prioritizing what should be at the focus of our attention, I mean, in theory, we should be doing certain things, and we want to optimize what we do in order to be more productive, but in practice, what we end up doing is not necessarily optimal.
Host: Right. So, as you’re doing the research here at Microsoft Research and you’re dealing with high-tech solutions to this problem of fragmentation, are you drawing on any of that, you know, sort of decades-old psychological literature and/or any theory?
Shamsi Iqbal: Oh absolutely, I mean, that is what I feel that drives my research a lot is that I’m a computer scientist by training, so I’d had no background in psychology but I went back and I read up on these theories because I feel that that helps explain a lot of things and how we do them and why we do them in a certain way. Going back to your question, we have to adapt to this new way of how things happen or how we are getting interrupted and that’s where the psychology theories or the understanding comes in and one of my goals is to help develop technology to provide the solution.
Host: I want to ask you about the word that pops up in your research a lot right now which is productivity. And it’s hard to define and measure.
Shamsi Iqbal: Oh, yeah.
Host: But as a researcher, you have to be working from some sort of baseline.
Shamsi Iqbal: Right.
Host: So, I think you said we’re not machines to be measured by “maximum output per unit of time” but it often seems like we’re trying to reach some kind of accomplishment nirvana or something…
Shamsi Iqbal: Right.
Host: …and employ technology to help us get there.
Shamsi Iqbal: Yep.
Host: So, what do you think about that and how do you operationalize, to use a classic researcher term, the word “productivity” in the context of your work?
Shamsi Iqbal: So, yeah. The industry definition of productivity that you just mentioned, I mean, it covers only so much of it and we ourselves have been debating about what does productivity actually mean? Because for an information worker, much of the work is so, I mean, it’s not necessarily tangible or measurable. I spend two hours reading a paper.
Shamsi Iqbal: It helps me improve my knowledge but how do you put a number to it? How do you measure that? And so, that’s true for many of the things that we do is that the outcome is not externally visible. So, in our research, what we have done a lot is that we just ask people. We ask them how productive they feel. The other thing that we do look at is that there’s some external measures, I mean, you can look at time people are spending on productivity applications. How many things on their to-do lists are they getting done? The quality of their work maybe. But it’s still up in the air a little bit and we are working hard towards coming up with the definition of productivity for information workers. We’re still doing that.
Host: Mm-hmm. So, is that the focus then, is information workers as your target audience kind of?
Shamsi Iqbal: So that is a big target audience but, I mean, using computers and devices is not only limited to information workers. I mean, you look around you and everyone has multiple devices they’re using. They’re constantly getting interrupted. Their attention is fragmented… I’m using the word “fragmented” again.
Host: I love it.
Shamsi Iqbal: So, I think that this, these findings are basically generalizable to the general population.
Host: Yeah. Some people claim we’re living in an “attention economy” where distraction is the new normal and focus is the new coin of the realm. And we could lament our collective short attention span or try harder to reclaim our ability to be single-minded, but you’re taking a different tack by using technology to help us co-exist with distraction and still get stuff done.
Shamsi Iqbal: Right.
Host: So, why do you think your approach is necessary? Because the other one is putting the genie back in the bottle, right?
Shamsi Iqbal: Mm-hmm. So, well the word “distraction” has a negative connotation to it and I want to look at it differently because sometimes you do need to step away from work and you do need to take breaks and you do need to just refresh your perspectives and I believe that that actually makes you more productive in the long run. So, I think that the problem is deeper here. So, we need to take breaks. We need to do other stuff, but we have difficulties in prioritizing what is important for us, what we need to get done, what moves us forward in the responsibilities that we have. And we often get lost. And I think that’s where technology can help us. I mean, if I’m not able to help myself because I am just distractible and when I go down that rat hole of distractions, then maybe yes, I do need something that pulls me back out. And so, that’s how we’re coming at this problem because I personally don’t feel that if you take a break and you go and chat with a colleague about mundane things, or if I go on Facebook or Twitter, unless I’m spending hours on it, I don’t see that to be a problem.
Host: Right. Let’s talk about some of your earlier work. I love digging into research history because it always informs current work. So, I’d like to go back to a paper you wrote with the illustrious Eric Horvitz in 2007, where you highlight the concern around what you guys called the “chain of diversion.” This can occur when you take a break from your work, whether intentional or not, and you find yourself so far down the rabbit hole that you can’t even remember what you were doing. What does the science tell us about these diversions, especially in terms of focus and recovery time, and what research ideas have emerged since then to help us mitigate the gravitational pull of infinite scroll, as I would call it?
Shamsi Iqbal: Oh yeah. So, this was work that I did as an intern in 2006, so thirteen years ago. Smartphones weren’t a thing then, so what we were looking at is just basically one device or one machine, a laptop or a desktop, and what people did on that single machine. We were very interested in notifications and what happens when an email notification pops up because it’s that trigger for you to switch attention. Or an IM notification pops up because you know someone is waiting on the other end for your response.
Shamsi Iqbal: And we wanted to see what happens. And so that is what led to us characterizing this chain of diversion. Which was interesting because you feel that you know what is going on but when you see it in real data, that really pops out. And so, what we found is that well, a notification, often important, it pulls you to email, so you go and check your Outlook. And once you have disengaged from that task that you were working on, it’s kind of like an open invitation to go and be further distracted. So, one email leads to the next one, and then maybe you go and check your personal email. Maybe now that you’re in a browser, so you might go and browse and then fifteen to eighteen minutes have passed and this is something that we actually found, and then you realize, if you’re lucky, that you actually had some other work that you were doing that you need to get back to. And now the challenge is that you had to figure out what you were doing. So, you were all tabbing across all the open applications. And then when you land on the one that you finally realize that, okay, so this is the document that I was working on, then you need to recreate that context.
Shamsi Iqbal: So basically, all of what I described right after you decide that, yes, I need to return, that’s the resumption time.
Shamsi Iqbal: And so that’s one of the key metrics that we use in measuring interruptability. And so, the problem now is even worse, right? So, you now have multiple devices. So, you have your phone. You have maybe multiple…
Shamsi Iqbal: …machines that you’re working on and multiple entities that are…
Shamsi Iqbal: …demanding your attention. And so, you’re switching back and forth. So, we haven’t quite quantified that yet, but we’ll see.
Host: So, this is the world we’re living in, and the world you’re helping us try to navigate.
Shamsi Iqbal: Mm-hmm.
Host: And sometimes mitigate. Let’s talk in more detail about the work you’re doing now. And I would give it the broad umbrella of micro-productivity…
Shamsi Iqbal: Mm-hmm.
Host: …and how you and your colleagues are asking questions about snippets of time or micro-moments…
Shamsi Iqbal: Mm-hmm.
Host: …as you call them, to help us take advantage of otherwise, quote-unquote, wasted time.
Shamsi Iqbal: Mm-hmm.
Host: And in the process, free us up to do longer stretches of time on things we want to do. What’s your work about? And how do I make micro-moments work for me?
Shamsi Iqbal: So, yeah. So, I’m going to take you back to probably 2013 when Jaime Teevan and I first started looking at this. And we came from the point of view that we’re not going to be able to stop the multiple stream of informations that people have to process, and they have to switch their attention across. So, we basically have to find a way that we can adopt to this new normal.
Shamsi Iqbal: The traditional way of doing things is that you set aside chunks of time, and you get focused and get things done. And that’s how all of our tasks are designed. And that would work, except for the fact that just finding that chunk of time to focus is difficult. What we do have is these little bits and pieces of moments. They’re scattered throughout the day. And we said, what if we de-frag all of those moments, and we get something substantial done? The idea is that you take a task, you break it down into smaller chunks. And then you can kind of scatter those tasks throughout your day. So, you have five minutes before a meeting. Maybe you can get ten of those tasks done. And maybe you have two minutes, which is really not enough to do anything, but you could get a couple of to-dos off your plate.
Host: This takes forethought in order to break down the tasks…
Shamsi Iqbal: Right.
Host: …that you have, and so how do you get to the point where you could actually break that… or am I getting ahead of myself, and that’s what your research is helping us to get to?
Shamsi Iqbal: No. I think you have the right question because when we started this line of research, that’s one of the challenges that we had is that we can’t expect that people are going to break down their own tasks. So, as part of our solution, we need to have a way of creating these workflows. So, if you take a complex task, and there is a way that you could break it down into a series of smaller sub-tasks, and then for the end-user, all they see is these micro-tasks that are popping up at different moments.
Shamsi Iqbal: They don’t have to worry about how to break them down. Our system, or our framework, is going to do that for them.
Host: So, what kinds of tasks can be broken down in the way that you are describing?
Shamsi Iqbal: That’s a great question, and we assume that most tasks could be. And again, there’s some psychology backing of this as well. There’s this idea called task unitization, and this goes back to the ’70s where researchers had people look at videos of people doing physical tasks, like folding laundry or mowing the lawn, and asked them to write down exactly what is happening.
Shamsi Iqbal: So, when you ask people to look at the unit tasks, so they are basically coming up with a series of very small actions.
Shamsi Iqbal: And that’s what we wanted to get at. Now, in terms of more information work tasks, if you think of using micro-moments, we are already doing some of it. We do a lot of communication tasks. They’re mostly discrete and not part of a bigger task. We were interested in, okay, let’s pick up complex tasks…
Shamsi Iqbal: …such as writing, because no one thinks of writing in terms of micro-tasks. We wanted to take that challenge and say, can we break down writing tasks into smaller sub-tasks so that at least some of these are things that we could do in micro-moments?
Shamsi Iqbal: So, imagine that you need to add a citation to your writing. I mean, you don’t really need focused time for that. You could get a bunch of those and get them done in your free time.
Shamsi Iqbal: There are other tasks as well. For example, correcting grammar or spelling. But it took us a while to get to that point is that…
Shamsi Iqbal: …what makes sense? There are also things like information gathering. So, if I’m writing…
Shamsi Iqbal: …I mean, I need to get some information from a website. So, I might do that as a micro-task.
Shamsi Iqbal: And in some sense, it helps with your focus as well. So, if I’m sitting there focusing on my writing, and then suddenly, oh, yeah, I need to grab these numbers, if I switch at that moment, that basically means that I am opening myself up to a chain of diversion. I would rather postpone that little action…
Shamsi Iqbal: …as a micro-task that I can get back to later and continue with my focused writing.
Host: Well, that takes a tremendous amount of self-awareness.
Shamsi Iqbal: But it’s also… I’m pretty certain that people do add these in-line notes when they’re writing…
Shamsi Iqbal: …at least, I do, and I wouldn’t characterize myself as the most…
Shamsi Iqbal: …organized person when I’m writing.
Shamsi Iqbal: But I do insert these in-line notes because I don’t want to interrupt the flow.
Host: Along those lines, tell us about this tool that you’ve developed called Play Write.
Shamsi Iqbal: Mm-hmm.
Host: Which is actually a funny play on words, from my perspective. It’s a technical tool that breaks certain tasks down into smaller ones…
Shamsi Iqbal: Mm-hmm.
Host: …which would be helpful for me.
Shamsi Iqbal: Right.
Host: So how does it work, where do you use it, and what have you found as a result of your research with this tool?
Shamsi Iqbal: So, as you said, it is an interesting play of the word. So, we wanted to have the word play in it because we wanted the interactions to be playful and game-like. And, again, this is an instantiation of micro-task writing or micro-writing.
Shamsi Iqbal: And it’s a framework, basically, which interacts with Microsoft Word. It will analyze your Word document. It will extract micro-tasks out of it, and these are just all basically writing micro-tasks.
Shamsi Iqbal: It could be something as simple as spelling corrections, which is a very context-free task.
Shamsi Iqbal: And it takes you about two seconds to get it done. Or grammatical corrections or triaging comments and those kinds of things. And we started off with a small list of tasks which can be, of course, expanded.
Shamsi Iqbal: It extracts those, puts them on the cloud, and then, through a mobile app, you can access those tasks. And it’s designed in a way that you could just interact with these in a game-like fashion. You could play games like let’s see how many tasks we could do in five minutes or…
Shamsi Iqbal: …two minutes or let me finish all the tasks on this document. And then later it gets integrated back into your Word document.
Shamsi Iqbal: So essentially, you are making progress when you’re away from your document…
Shamsi Iqbal: …with very little cognitive engagement or time commitment.
Host: Right. So, I want to circle back just more 10,000-foot view on this idea of micro-productivity…
Shamsi Iqbal: Mm-hmm.
Host: …and micro-tasks and micro-moments. Have you found this to resonate with the people that you bring into research?
Shamsi Iqbal: I think it all depends on the framing. One of the concerns that people have is that, oh, my god, you are ruining my free time! You’re going to make me work all the time. And that’s not the goal at all. So, one of the goals, or I would say the major goal, is to actually save people time.
Shamsi Iqbal: So since just finding focused time is so difficult, what we’re essentially trying to do is to get people to do things or tasks in these short bursts…
Shamsi Iqbal: …with the hope that it will amount to an outcome that you would have gotten if you had similar focused time. And our dream is that through this, we could probably save people an hour, and then maybe you can go home an hour early and spend time on other things…
Shamsi Iqbal: …that is not work.
Host: One area of lost time that we can all relate to is drive-time in our commutes to and from work, but you’ve even got a productivity hack idea for that. So, tell us about your work on speech-based productivity support in the car. What kinds of studies have you done so far…
Shamsi Iqbal: Uh-huh.
Host: …and what conclusions have you drawn to date on this idea?
Shamsi Iqbal: Oh. This is a fun topic, and this is probably the topic that we get the most discussions and the feedback, and the back and forths on. So, I mean, we have done many years of research with Eric Horvitz looking at how people do tasks when they are driving a car. And these projects are using driving simulators, so no one was harmed during these experiments.
Host: No humans were harmed during these experiments.
Shamsi Iqbal: Exactly. But we have been trying to characterize how people do tasks, and one of the interesting findings there is that driving is mostly automated.
Shamsi Iqbal: And there are opportunities for people to actually interweave a non-driving task. If I go back to my original point about pots of cognitive resources, when driving is so automated that you really don’t have to think about it, you do have some cognitive resources that are left over that you could make use of. I’m going to flip the question. I’m going to ask you, so when you’re in a car, there’s a passenger in the car. How many times, on average, do you speak to that person?
Host: All the time.
Shamsi Iqbal: There you go. And I would imagine that most people would interact with the in-vehicle controls. They’re trying to play on the radio. They’re trying to set the temperature and I mean, there are tons of other non-driving tasks that people engage in. What I’m saying is that we do have this cognitive resource residue, or leftovers, that we could potentially use. And what we tried to look at it is that, well, if a person is having a conversation in a car, and let’s assume that it is a phone conversation using Bluetooth, they’re able to have that conversation, but they are very careful in interweaving it safely. So, they would talk for a bit, they would make sure that they are driving properly, they would talk for a bit again, and these are again driving simulator studies…
Shamsi Iqbal: …so, we saw an opportunity there. And based on the micro-tasking, or the micro-productivity progress that we have made, we wanted to push the boundaries a little further.
Shamsi Iqbal: And here we are, we have these long commute times. So, we wanted to kind of like come up with this concept is that well, I mean, intelligent assistance is becoming a thing, and Siri and Cortana and Alexa, these will soon make their ways into our cars to help us do things via speech. And so how can we leverage these technologies to actually get things done in the car?
Shamsi Iqbal: So, our goal was, can we capture people’s thoughts, and can we push it a little further? Can we do something as far as creating a document or a PowerPoint via speech? And the interaction that we wanted to test out is that you have this intelligent system that will ask you a bunch of questions at opportune moments during driving – and when I say opportune moments, that means that when it feels that you are able to engage with those questions and these questions are super short, will take a few seconds, are context-free, so you don’t really have to think a lot to answer them – and once you put together all the information that is gathered, that can be saved as a draft of a document or a slide. So that’s the study that we did in a driving simulator. So we “Wizard of Ozzed” this, which is basically an experimenter was behind a technology that was interacting with drivers when they were driving on a really simple route and, at the same time, they were asked to interact with this agent that would ask them questions to which they provide the answers and eventually that turns into a document or a PowerPoint deck.
Shamsi Iqbal: That agent, at the same time, would also alert them towards different driving scenarios and so it would point out that well, there is a speed bump coming up, or you need to make a left turn, so it will make sure that you are focusing on the road. It would also pull back at the interactions whenever the road conditions became dicey.
Host: That’s interesting. I would think, even if it didn’t make its way into, you know, cars that we drive today, it would certainly be useful in a self-driving car…
Shamsi Iqbal: Absolutely.
Host: …where you aren’t required to have as much engagement.
Shamsi Iqbal: Absolutely, and that was also one of our motivations behind this. I mean, even though you’re not driving, it’s still not your office. It’s still an attentionally-challenged environment…
Shamsi Iqbal: …where you would keep on getting interrupted, so you still need to design tasks in a different way so that you are able to attend to them differently than you would do in a secluded office.
Host: I’m really intrigued by this research because the idea that I could, you know, when you’re driving sometimes you have an idea and you want to write it down, but you can’t…
Shamsi Iqbal: Right.
Host: …or you do and it’s dangerous…
Shamsi Iqbal: Yeah, well, so this was why I was motivated to do this research, is that I have about a thirty-minute commute during rush hour.
Shamsi Iqbal: And I have all these thoughts that are floating through my mind and it actually does take away my ability to focus on the road. So, wouldn’t it be great if there is a way that we could capture these thoughts easily so that I have them out of my head, recorded somewhere, I don’t have to worry about them…
Shamsi Iqbal: …until I get to my destination.
Host: I hope you’re successful on this research.
Shamsi Iqbal: Hopefully. We’ll see.
Host: It’s a ways out, but…
Shamsi Iqbal: We’ll see. But the interesting thing is what we found is that people were really… they found it to be useful. What they found really useful is the added alerts that the system was pointing them towards, the different things on driving that they should be focusing on. We also saw a compensatory behavior so people, right at the beginning, they would slow down so that they had reasonable headway distance with the car in front so that they wouldn’t crash into it.
Shamsi Iqbal: And so, people already have these kinds of behaviors, but what was also interesting is that if the questions were unpredictable, that would just throw them off.
Host: I bet.
Shamsi Iqbal: So, one of the take-aways is that, well maybe these questions should be something that people decide themselves. So, if I know that these are the things that I want to address later and I could do them in a car, that’s what should show up. Because then I’m expecting them.
Shamsi Iqbal: I already have the context. I just need to get them recorded somehow.
Host: And that brings us back to the foresight and ability to plan ahead or have enough margin in your day to have thought through the things you want to ask yourself when you’re in the car.
Shamsi Iqbal: Right. So, one of the things that we are also looking at is, how can we easily create these micro-tasks without requiring people to, again, sit down and then make a list of things that we are doing?
Host: Well okay, Shamsi, we’ve reached the “what could possibly go wrong?” part of the show. And I have to ask you, is there anything about your work that keeps you up at night? So let me, let me contextualize this a little. You’re trying to help people be more productive, but let’s be honest, the quest for increased productivity can have unintended consequences. We’ve alluded to them a little bit earlier; for example, this idea that if I can be more productive, I must be more productive.
Shamsi Iqbal: Mm-hmm.
Host: And, as you’ve said, it isn’t just other people, it’s our own expectations of ourself… Will I ever be enough?
Shamsi Iqbal: Right.
Host: So, what is to keep us from falling into that trap of the ever-moving goal posts or always asymptotically approaching “productive enough” status?
Shamsi Iqbal: I probably mentioned this before, is that I find the word productivity to be very mechanical. And another strand of my research which I alluded to is work that I have done, and am continuing to do, with Mary Czerwinski and Gloria Mark from UC Irvine, where we’re looking at people’s ability to focus at work. At the same time, how can we support well-being?
Shamsi Iqbal: And what we have found is, breaks are super important. I mean, we can’t ask people to be productive all the time because that doesn’t work. So, if you want to have a happy, productive, satisfied worker, you need to be able to support them in a way that they get things done, they get things done efficiently, and that’s where the system support comes through.
Shamsi Iqbal: But they also are able to take breaks and relax, and be present at things that are not work, be present with their families, be present with their hobbies and not have to work all the time. But I totally hear you. There will be cases where it gets abused. We are working very hard to make sure that we don’t promote that kind of behavior.
Host: Mm-hmm. So is there anything else that comes to your mind, that you’re thinking ahead on, in this realm. Aside from, you know, the psychological need to be valuable, I guess is a good word.
Shamsi Iqbal: Mm-hmm. So, I think that we need to rethink how we get things done and we’re also not saying that you don’t need focused time. You do need focused time. There are certain things that you cannot do without having focused time. So, what we are looking at is that there is this alternative way of getting things done. And maybe the combination of both is where we go for the next few years.
Host: Hmm. Yeah, I’m thinking of surgery…
Shamsi Iqbal: Uh huh.
Host: You can’t micro-task that one.
Shamsi Iqbal: Right. You might not want to do that via micro-tasks! But there might be parts of it that are micro-taskable…
Host: All right, it’s story time.
Shamsi Iqbal: Okay.
Host: Tell us a bit about yourself and your background. What got young Shamsi Iqbal interested in technology research, particularly around attention, multi-tasking and productivity?
Shamsi Iqbal: Yeah, it’s kind of like a fun path. So, I did my undergrad back in Bangladesh. That’s where I grew up. I went to a very traditional engineering program. It was the top engineering program in Bangladesh, but it was very traditional. I had never heard of human computer interaction before I started applying for grad school. And then, when I came to grad school in 2002, I came thinking that I was going to do artificial intelligence because I liked seeing patterns and data, and that’s what I wanted to work on. A new professor came to our department and gave a talk on this subject called human computer interaction and I went to that talk and I said, oh, wow, that’s interesting! I mean, you can actually identify problems that humans care about and then you can come up with technology solutions and you can see, directly, the impact. So, that’s where my work on attention management started. So, that’s what I’ve been working on for the past… seventeen years?
Host: There was a jump there on “that’s where my interest in attention management started” so, what triggered that? Because HCI is a big…
Shamsi Iqbal: Right.
Shamsi Iqbal: So, I did skip over a lot of details, but during that path, or during that journey, I came to know about the amazing research that goes on in MSR. So, particularly in terms of work that Eric Horvitz has done, and Mary Czerwinski has done. And those where the pioneers that I looked up to.
Shamsi Iqbal: And I was extremely lucky to have an opportunity to do an internship with Eric in 2006. And 2008, I showed up as a full-timer… I’ve been here since then.
Host: I love this new question that I’ve been asking because the answers have really surprised and amazed me. So, I would like to ask you, what is one interesting thing, whether it’s a trait, a characteristic or even a life event, that people might not know about you that has influenced your career as a researcher?
Shamsi Iqbal: I don’t know whether this has influenced my career as a researcher, but I used to be terrified of public speaking and, in some sense, I still am a little anxious before I have to give a big talk. And it’s interesting, because as a researcher I have to give talks all the time, but I will be lying if I say that I don’t worry about them.
Host: So, how have you overcome that?
Shamsi Iqbal: So, I came up with coping strategies and one of them is really silly: I start off with a joke. Most of the time the joke doesn’t land, but at least it calms me down. So, I’ve done that at big talks and, uh, it makes me feel better.
Host: Do you have like a standard joke?
Shamsi Iqbal: No, I wing it, depending on what the situation is. So, I remember once, at CHI, I just messed up at the beginning saying, oh, my talk is at 12 a.m., and that was in a room full of probably 2500 people. Because I totally messed up what a.m. was, and p.m. was.
Host: Oh, funny.
Shamsi Iqbal: And then at the real talk, I said, well, thank you for all showing up, because I asked everyone to show up at midnight!
Host: All right. Well, at the end of every show I give my guests an opportunity to share anything they want with our listeners and often it’s in the form of advice or words of wisdom, so what would you tell your 25-year-old self and how might it apply to others heading in the same direction now?
Shamsi Iqbal: I would say, confidence takes you far, openness takes you on different paths during that journey, and humility keeps you grounded. I have had to work on the first one, the second two are easier for me.
Host: Shamsi Iqbal, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a delight.
Shamsi Iqbal: Thanks a lot, Gretchen. It was fun talking to you.
To learn more about Dr. Shamsi Iqbal and the science of micro-productivity, visit Microsoft.com/research