You Can’t Hurry Relevance

Lately, I’ve been musing about the Herb Simon quote that launched–or at least popularized–the concepts of information overload and attention economics:
in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it (Simon, 1971)

I hope everyone agrees that attention is a scarce good. But I’m curious how people measure it. After all, if we’re going to talk about an economic good being scarce, we ought to quantify it!

One approach is to measure attention at a specific moment in time, measuring how much of our instantaneous cognitive capacity we devote to a task. This approach is useful for evaluating a user interface–in particular, for determining how users allocate their attention among the various interface elements. Another approach is to measure attention in units of time, e.g., how many of our waking hours do we devote to a particular activity. This latter strikes me as more of what Herb Simon had in mind.

We can interpret the two definitions as equivalent–after all, cumulative attention devoted to a task is simply the sum (or integral) of instantaneous attention over time. But thinking this way so misses a key consideration: we pay a significant price for context switching.

A familiar example is email. The total time we spend reading email is a productivity concern, but the larger concern for many of us is the frequency with which email causes us to interrupt our workflow. Knowing this, I made a brief attempt in 2008 to check email only once a day. Unfortunately, this approach would have violated too many of my peers’ expectations. I returned to status quo, reading my email (or at least scanning headers) as it arrives. Other messaging tools, such as instant messaging and Twitter, only add to the challenge of managing our personal communication flow.

Of course, what I really want is for my messaging tools to distinguish urgent messages from non-urgent ones, and to only interrupt my workflow for the former. I know that no system, whether based on manual filtering or algorithmic analysis, can make this subjective classification with 100% accuracy, but I’d certainly accept a handful of false positives in exchange for far fewer interruptions. I suspect I’m not alone.

Moreover, this approach extends beyond personal communications to more public ones, such as social media platforms and even web search. On one hand, the passing of time offers an opportunity to accumulate reliable content analysis; on the other hand, we don’t want to miss time-sensitive content just because the system waited too long to determine the content’s relevance to our information needs. Still, the low signal-to-noise ratio on social media platforms suggests to me that many information consumers would be amenable to a different tradeoff than the one we experience today.

What I’d really like to see is systems take advantage of the differences in users’ personal senses of urgency. Some examples:

  • A widely broadcast email isn’t delivered all at once, but first goes to users with higher urgency settings. Because those users mark it as spam, the email is already marked as spam for users with lower urgency settings. Conversely, if enough high-urgency users mark it as important, then it may be sent to lower-urgency users sooner.
  • High-urgency users frequently check news sites and blogs. If an article attract a threshold level of engagement from high-urgency users, then low-urgency users are notified. This approach could apply to general news or to news in a specific topic that the user follows.
  • Same as above, but applied to activity feeds and based on engagement within your social network. But again, high-urgency users lead the way, seeing updates sooner but at the price of experiencing a noisier stream.

To some extent, our existing systems already approximate this approach. Mechanisms like favoriting and re-tweeting propagate signal from information scouts to their followers, as do algorithms that rank real-time information based on engagement. Still, as an information consumer, I’d appreciate an interface that explicitly and transparently adapts to my priorities, and that manages interruption of my workflow accordingly.

What do folks here think? Is information delayed tantamount to information denied? Or is time on our side, potentially offering us a better tradeoff than the one we experience today?

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

20 replies on “You Can’t Hurry Relevance”

nice blog post.

one thing, that i saw as a side benefit, as it wasnt mentioned in the talk at CHI, was a potential benefit of a task-based desktop system – on-going work from stephen voida.

its not hitting all of your goals for an email prioritization system, but it highlighted new email per task-desktop (based on labelled collaborators).

i know task-based desktop organisation is still a little idealistic, but i liked it and it seemed like an opportunity to interrupt work if new email relating to the current task arrived.


I agree – nice post.

I agree with what you are saying – it’s also not just about the amount of information, but the wasted attention time is spent filtering rather than consuming.

You make a nice point about interrupting too, which is compounded by the wasted attention spent as we get distracted with consuming something that is not relevant.

I love the idea of an e-mail voting system, where the priority of a mail gets voted down – but who chooses this gateway of folks?

Also, if we start consuming stuff that only creates ‘buzz’ – the propagation of content from scouts to followers – don’t we then end up consuming a lot of bland popular content, enjoyed by the noisy few – rather than relevant to us?

Obviously we choose our scouts ourselves and I admit I have scouts that I trust when clicking on a link on Twitter – but don’t we miss the opportunity to find something interesting, maybe surprising and perhaps uniquely relevant to us? Aren’t the majority of us scouts for own small communities?

Also, I think the timeliness of consumption could be a uniquely personal thing. If an ‘all staff’ email tells me someone is joining the organisation that day and I stumble into them at the coffee machine. The timeliness of that email maybe its relevance.

Not sure where I am going with this – whilst I agree I’d love an ‘Ian Truscott’ shaped internet and e-mail filter – but I wonder if that’s more about the delivering and finding of well understood content. It’s actually about the content?

I also wonder if we should actually just make time for the irrelevant? Make time to enjoy a blog post that’s not laser focused on our interests, or enjoy the fact that Mary in some far flung office (who you’ve never met, will probably never meet) is having a baby.

Anyway, nice post…



Great post. There is no question from an advertising standpoint fewer, more relevant ads would get better response rates, be more memorable, etc. The signal to noise ratio in advertising is of course a huge issue. In display we’ve already been trained to ignore the ads whereas in search non commercial queries don’t contain ads on the SERP at all. Some basic lessons here I think. Look forward to more thoughts from you on this in the future.


There will not be one tangible “thing” that manages interruptions based on priorities. But there will be a collection of technologies and capabilities that, taken together, can be used to manage attention. I call this collection of technologies and capabilities that manage attention the Enterprise Attention Management conceptual architecture. I posted this architectural model on the KnowledgeForward blog in 2006. You can find it here:

Since it is not one, purpose-built, tightly integrated set of pieces, it takes a walk-through to apply it to any particular problem. The problem you mention in this posting is e-mail, and you’ve provided 3 good suggestions on how to take advantage of urgency. I applied the EAM model to e-mail as an example and yielded 15 examples where technology could help, many of which are indeed available in some e-mail systems (although often buried or cludgy). You can see my list and how the EAM architecture helped derive it here:

I really like your thought that urgency should be taken into account in the e-mail process. You have some good ideas for the receiving end of e-mail. I still wouldn’t give up on the sender’s side too. When sending letters and packages, people don’t mind picking between a number of options (ground, express, signature required, etc.) that indicate urgency. If we can do a bit of behavior change (or possible force people via a token system), it’s interesting to think about how much e-mail could be improved. Easier said than done though.


What I’d really like to see is systems take advantage of the differences in users’ personal senses of urgency.

Yes, I would like this to extend to web search, too. Instead of assuming that fast is always better than slow, as certain 🙂 companies do, I would like the option of being able to say: I don’t care if it take 10 seconds or even 2 minutes for this particular query to return, as long as the results, or the organization of the results, is better than what I’m getting with the 0.34 second result.

Why does this not exist?


I too have been thinking about attention economies, but as I wrote in a recent blog post ( there’s a paradox. Economies exist to allocate effort to where it’s best used. The way they allocate effort is by providing signals (prices) about where that effort should be directed. But to use those signals we have to pay attention. In other words, to decide where to allocate our attention resource, we have to spend it. It’s a kind of tax on our attention.


Thanks all for the nice words and related blog posts!

Max: I hadn’t thought about task-based desktop organization of activities, but I could see how a smarter desktop might be more prudent about interrupting user flow. Still, that feels second-order to the issue of being interrupted by communication.

Ian: fair points. In response to one of them, perhaps we could all be expose to a small amount of random content, thus distributing the work of scouting.

Craig: I agree that the sender should be part of the equation. I was going to go off on a tangent about attention bond mechanisms, but I figured I’d save that for another post.

Jeremy: nice segue! And I think the challenge is understanding what the user will perceive as better. I actually think users would accept an interface that sometimes said “hold on, this will take me a moment” if it then delivered on expectations. But there is a catch: latency in giving users initial feedback may mean that they wait too long to find out that their going on the wrong track. Anyway, this is a another great subject for another post. 🙂

David: good point about the cost of soliciting feedback. I think I’m advocating a similar “comparative advantage” approach by having high-urgency users scout for low-urgency ones.


Seems to me the sender is a big part of the solution… but the sender has to be given more options than say, “urgent” or “not urgent.” Along the lines of a semantic web, what if senders could “tag” their emails, which would allow each receiver to rank what “tags” get higher priority?

For example, emails tagged assignment, speaking engagement, basketball tickets, deadline changed, or even “new baby” (a la Ian’s example) will come through at real time if you choose and others would be saved for the end-of-day email review.

Of course the above system is easily exploitable by advertisers and spammers, but there are already ways to deal with them.

Enjoying your blog!




Very interesting (and sorry just finding out now about the conference!).

I’m going to use the Furnas quote in the paper in my next blog – “people use a surprisingly great variety of words to refer to the same thing.” Hm.


Well, there’s more to talk about than can be written in a short blog response, but here are a few comments:

We had great resonance within Microsoft with the research on attention as scarce resource and with attention-aware machinery/designs at the company especially during the span of years around 1999-2002, with strong support of Bill Gates and other senior executives and group leads. My sense is that the research and prototyping helped with company-wide reflection about ideas and directions, and, perhaps more important, helped to catalyze a persistent shift of thinking about the importance of attentional considerations in computing systems. The shift in perspective is having some long-term influences in both machinery and design (and combinations)–we are only at the beginning! There’s much to be done! Progress in going from exciting research prototypes has been slower than I had expected. I had demo’d a fairly comprehensive (per components), end-to-end attention management system named Notification Platform to Bill Gates and others in 1999 or so-and that had generated a bunch of excitement.

Specific product influences to date include MSN Alerts, several pieces of infrastructure, such as rich schemas/APIs for communicating about urgency and attention, components in products for computing time until user available, next usage, etc.. and several products and product features, such as the Outlook Mobile Manager product–based on the Priorities system (Priorities was available internally at Microsoft since 1998 or so) or so, and on Microsoft Communicator –which evolved out of the Bestcom (best-means communication) prototype that we had developed in a collaboration with a product team. The Bestcom prototype for managing telephony/real-time communications and communication scheduling spread like wildfire within Microsoft around 2003-2005 and was used by about 10,000 Microsoft folks (per our logging–part of the deal for using it) at its peak within Microsoft before the code was forked to start the path toward the Communicator product (now shipping, but lacking a bunch of the deeper attention management features in the research prototype ancestor). There have also been some influences on design. Priorities used an urgency- and context-sensitive fading alert that was picked up by Outlook, but that alert, while resembling the alpha-blended alert in the Priorities system isn’t currently attention sensitive.

So, we’re on the path on this challenging and interesting terrain, and people at all levels seem to be aware and interested, but there’s a great deal to be done to make our systems more aware of human cognition (attention, memory, judgment, etc.)


Eric, thanks for the detailed explanation! I understand that this area is a hard slog–and that it’s a place where artificial intelligence can easily go wrong. I wish you and your colleagues luck in productizing this long-term research program.


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