From Idle Time to Deep Attention: The Impacts on Operational Support Systems

Of all technological advancements, smartphones have had one of the most profound impacts on humanity in recent history. They have ingeniously monetised “idle time,” the brief intermissions between our important tasks, often filling our idle moments with a plethora of addictive apps, content and social media. However, as technology has evolved, these “idle time” tasks have addictively and increasingly encroached upon our dedicated attention spans, often expanding to consume significant portions of our day.

A side effect of this encroachment is diminishing deep-thinking or flow-state time, particularly in work environments. Between addictive distractions and an increasing frequency of meetings, many of us struggle to achieve periods of uninterrupted focus, which are critical for creative thought and problem-solving. Yet, as we navigate the ebb and flow of technological advancements, I wonder whether the pendulum might be starting to swing back towards monetising and protecting our attention, or as it’s often called, “paying attention.” If the pendulum isn’t already starting to swing back, then it certainly represents a huge opportunity for app developers. Many of us want to find ways, other than (or in addition to?) disconnecting from socials, to increase our deep-think time and productivity.

Just as an aside, there have been discussions about major plateaus in global productivity, with an example in the graph below. Apple launched its iPhone in 2007. It makes for an almost perfectly aligned breakpoint from trend in the graph below….. although it is important to note that productivity can be influenced by a myriad of factors, including economic policy, technology, education levels, business practices and much more so I’m not suggesting smart phones are the sole cause.  It does make me curious whether they have, in partnership with “idle-time apps,” had a significant impact though.

Given this context, the question arises: what is the most effective way to engage people in a flow-state? It’s possible that the answer is surprisingly simple – games. Games have an inherent ability to absorb us in their narratives, mechanics and challenges, leading us naturally into a state of deep attention. And that’s not by accident. It’s by careful application design and journey flow. This video does a wonderful job of describing important game metrics – measuring Time to Fun, Time to Flow and Time to Frustration –

Operational Support Systems (OSS), the backbone of telecom network management, unfortunately, often stand as antithesis to flow. Their complexity, counter-intuitiveness and steep learning curves can be barriers to achieving the desired level of engagement.

To transform OSS tools into flow-engines, we have the opportunity to consider game design approaches – designing these systems to be as engaging and absorbing as the best smartphone apps or to improve collaboration like multi-player games. This concept is captured succinctly in the ‘time to fun, flow and frustration’ theory described in the video link above. It emphasises the importance of minimising the time it takes for a user to start having fun and enter a flow state, while finding the perfect balance before they experience frustration and challenges.

However, to effectively gamify these tools, we need to ask: are our games intuitive enough to just start? The success of any game, digital or otherwise, relies heavily on its intuitiveness. If a user can’t quickly understand how to engage with the game, their chances of entering a flow state diminish significantly. In the case of games, a gamer can just stop playing and move to a different game. In the case of telco software, the operators are obliged to keep going, no matter how frustrated they feel, if they want to keep doing their job.

I often say that I know thousands of people in the OSS industry, but only a handful of UI (User Interface) designers. Even less that have game design experience. It seems logical that we could involve more UI and game designers in our OSS development process. These professionals understand how to create user-centric interfaces and experiences that encourage flow, engagement and enjoyment.

Equally important is the need to make room for iteration. Due to a never-ending backlog of new features being required, OSS developers tend to code until a new feature passes functional and performance requirements. There is no time to iterate on the UI. But that’s one of the key principles of UI design. Iterating until its more effective. Understanding what’s important, testing different approaches and refining based on feedback are all crucial components of effective UI design. This iterative cycle of design, test, explore and connect is the foundation of any successful product or system and there’s significant opportunity to apply it more systematically to OSS.

What excites me is that we stand on the precipice of an AR/VR revolution that will only serve to accelerate the need for game-design thinking in business applications. Immersive software is already progressing steadily. The “iPhone moment” is surely not far away when an AR/VR/XR headset will take the world by storm and revolutionise our ways of working, just like the iPhone (and others) impacted us back in 2007+.

By harnessing the power of games and the principles of intuitive design, we can transform our tools and systems into vehicles for deep attention, better collaboration, entirely new ways of working and amplifying creativity. And in doing so, we will not only improve our productivity and reduce operator frustration, but also safeguard one of our most precious resources – our attention.


PS. If you’re one of the few who have cross-over skills in OSS/BSS, UI design and game design principles, I’d love to connect with you.

Hat-tip to Suresh for the link between smartphones and idle-time monetisation!

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