Helsingin yliopisto


Helsingin yliopiston verkkojulkaisut

University of Helsinki, Helsinki 2006

Studies of working memory in interrupted human-computer interaction

Antti Oulasvirta

Doctoral dissertation, November 2006.
University of Helsinki, Faculty of Behavioural Sciences, Department of Psychology, Kognitiotiede and Helsinki Institute for Information Technology HIIT, University of Helsinki and Helsinki University of Technology.

Distraction in the workplace is increasingly more common in the information age. Several tasks and sources of information compete for a worker's limited cognitive capacities in human-computer interaction (HCI). In some situations even very brief interruptions can have detrimental effects on memory. Nevertheless, in other situations where persons are continuously interrupted, virtually no interruption costs emerge. This dissertation attempts to reveal the mental conditions and causalities differentiating the two outcomes. The explanation, building on the theory of long-term working memory (LTWM; Ericsson and Kintsch, 1995), focuses on the active, skillful aspects of human cognition that enable the storage of task information beyond the temporary and unstable storage provided by short-term working memory (STWM). Its key postulate is called a retrieval structure-an abstract, hierarchical knowledge representation built into long-term memory that can be utilized to encode, update, and retrieve products of cognitive processes carried out during skilled task performance. If certain criteria of practice and task processing are met, LTWM allows for the storage of large representations for long time periods, yet these representations can be accessed with the accuracy, reliability, and speed typical of STWM.

The main thesis of the dissertation is that the ability to endure interruptions depends on the efficiency in which LTWM can be recruited for maintaing information. An observational study and a field experiment provide ecological evidence for this thesis. Mobile users were found to be able to carry out heavy interleaving and sequencing of tasks while interacting, and they exhibited several intricate time-sharing strategies to orchestrate interruptions in a way sensitive to both external and internal demands. Interruptions are inevitable, because they arise as natural consequences of the top-down and bottom-up control of multitasking. In this process the function of LTWM is to keep some representations ready for reactivation and others in a more passive state to prevent interference. The psychological reality of the main thesis received confirmatory evidence in a series of laboratory experiments. They indicate that after encoding into LTWM, task representations are safeguarded from interruptions, regardless of their intensity, complexity, or pacing. However, when LTWM cannot be deployed, the problems posed by interference in long-term memory and the limited capacity of the STWM surface. A major contribution of the dissertation is the analysis of when users must resort to poorer maintenance strategies, like temporal cues and STWM-based rehearsal. First, one experiment showed that task orientations can be associated with radically different patterns of retrieval cue encodings. Thus the nature of the processing of the interface determines which features will be available as retrieval cues and which must be maintained by other means. In another study it was demonstrated that if the speed of encoding into LTWM, a skill-dependent parameter, is slower than the processing speed allowed for by the task, interruption costs emerge. Contrary to the predictions of competing theories, these costs turned out to involve intrusions in addition to omissions. Finally, it was learned that in rapid visually oriented interaction, perceptual-procedural expectations guide task resumption, and neither STWM nor LTWM are utilized due to the fact that access is too slow. These findings imply a change in thinking about the design of interfaces. Several novel principles of design are presented, basing on the idea of supporting the deployment of LTWM in the main task.

The title page of the publication

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Last updated 19.10.2006

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