Stop The Multitasking Myth

It seems there’s not a single job description that doesn’t include a reference to “multitasking” anymore. I don’t know why I find this so irritating, but it might be because humans can’t actually multitask very well. The term applies best to computers that are capable of doing two computational tasks simultaneously, which requires two processors. Humans don’t work like that.

Why Multitasking Gives Me A Headache

It turns out that it’s possible to appear to do two things at once when the things are different, like walking while talking on a cellphone. It’s harder to keep up appearances, however, when the tasks are similar. For example, try talking on the phone while writing an e-mail and you’ll get the idea pretty quickly. That’s because these processes require similar parts of your brain which leads to interference between the tasks.

What you end up doing is switching between talking and writing as quickly as possible. With training you can get better at this, but you’ll never be as good at either task as you would be if you were doing the task without the switching. Scientists attribute this in part to something called context switching, which basically means that you’ve gotta store information about the first task before switching to the second. When you’re ready to switch back to the first, you need to store the second task and re-load the first one. Sounds like a massive headache to me. Even when the tasks are very different, like talking on the phone and driving, performance decreases in both, which is more like a head injury than a headache.

Something Better

If you’re willing to accept that multitasking leads to lower efficiency and quality please help spread the word that multitasking is something that computers do, not humans. Please please please don’t use this in a job descroption. And, if you’re looking for a way to be more productive, point your employer/employee to recent studies that show that screen-size is directly related to productivity when using computers. There was a great article about this in the NY TImes Magazine here.  There have also been many studies: here’s an American Psychological Association study summary, and info on the University of Utah is discussed in this Wall Street Journal article:

Researchers at the University of Utah tested how quickly people performed tasks like editing a document and copying numbers between spreadsheets while using different computer configurations: one with an 18-inch monitor, one with a 24-inch monitor and with two 20-inch monitors. Their finding: People using the 24-inch screen completed the tasks 52% faster than people who used the 18-inch monitor; people who used the two 20-inch monitors were 44% faster than those with the 18-inch ones. There is an upper limit, however: Productivity dropped off again when people used a 26-inch screen. (The order of the tasks and the order of computer configurations were assigned randomly.)

One of the things that I’ve personally noticed is that having more screen space means you can see more of your open tasks/windows. This in turn allows you to organize your tasks more efficiently on your desktop, and prevents you from forgetting about them. Though I don’t currently have a huge screen, I find that Spaces and Exposé on the Mac OS simulate the big screen experience on a laptop by allowing you to quickly switch between multiple desktops (though don’t switch too much or interference will drag down productivity).

A final Word

Still think you’re a multitasker? Try keeping up with Thea Alba aka “the woman with ten brains”. She was a performer in the 1920’s who could write multiple different words at the same time. She may have been really good at context switching, though she compared what she was doing to what musicians do. In other words, she combined all the tasks into one choreographed effort. She trained a long time to do this with pre-selected words. Go ahead try it, I dare you.



Innovative Kiosks & The Mirror Stage

This weekend I read an article in the NY Times about new retail kiosks that will be coming to a store near you. I was happy to see that the examples from the article were created by the San Francisco office of Frog Design. When I read the article, I was reminded of an art project I worked on several years ago and the post I wrote a couple weeks ago about how some of the best marketing ideas bubble up from the arts. Here’s an example from my life:


(c) NY Times An artist’s rendering of an automated service island for a retail store from Intel and Frog Design.

From My Art

Back in 2001 I exhibited an installation entitled ROOM for which I created an initial experience designed to take the viewer’s mind off what they were thinking about before they arrived at the gallery. I used to think of it in culinary terms as a “cleansing of the palette”.  As they walked through the gallery entramce, they would see a video camera obviously positioned above the doorway. Once through the doorway they were confronted with a video screen that was obviously getting a video feed from the camera over the doorway. But something was off because the video showed someone walking up to the doorway, but there wasn’t anyone behind the viewer. Most people then noticed something very familiar about the person on the screen, it was them! What was happening, was that the video was delayed by about 15 seconds. The effect of this experience was intended to be jarring enough to distract viewers from anything they might have been thinking about before entering.

Mirror Stage

Mirror Stage is a simple concept that uses a similar video delay to improve the interaction customers have with mirrors in  retail clothing stores. The system uses an inexpensive camera that is embedded in the center of a flat screen television, along with a hacked Tivo box. A customer would walk up to the screen to see how a piece of clothing looked on them. They would use the screen as a mirror. What is unique about the system is that there would be a button on the wall that would allow the customer to delay the video (essentially hitting pause, then play on the Tivo). This would allow them to turn around and then look back at the screen to watch themselves turning around for themselves! No more adjusting mirrors, or twisting your neck to see your own reflection.

I though it was a rather clever idea, but never really got the project off the ground. I think the next generation of  kiosks is a great place to revisit the concept though, especially considering that the experience of watching yourself in delay is highly engaging. The NY Times article also talks about a partnership between I.B.M and EZface that allows kiosks to offer virtual makeovers. Basically, it takes a photograph of the customer’s face and allows them to digitally apply cosmetic treatments.

UPDATE: MarketingVox: a dressing room technology that made me laugh …. and maybe cry.

The Marketing Value

It goes without saying that the marketing value that could emerge from these new kiosks is significant. Simply understanding the kinds of questions that customers are searching for in-store versus online should offer insight into how to improve customer satisfaction. In the article Frog’s chief creative director talks about how sophisticated the online retail experience is (for example, the way it makes recommendations) and how that experience has not been available in store previously. It’s a good point, and one that deserves analysis based on use.

Beyond that, I  see how such as system could drive real-time layout changes in the store based on what customers are trying on most. Of course, it could also allow them to see the store inventory, and divert purchases online when the desired item is not in-store. I also think there are interesting opportunities to bring community into the experience, use analytics to return value to customers through the display, and connect the expereince customers have across touch-points.

Twtter Digest


Have a great weekend …. and don’t forget EARTH HOUR!

SF Chapter of The American Marketing Association Newsletter

Fellow Marketers,

I’m a board member at the San Francisco Chapter of the American Marketing Association, which is a great local organization. If you’re a recent graduate, looking for a new job,  simply looking to network with other marketers, or get continuing education, it’s worth becoming a member. We put on regular events such as an upcoming mixer for AD:TECH, and the Excellence In Marketing Awards.

They’ve also published some of my writing in the newsletter, which you can download by clicking on the image below.


Salesforce IS The Foundation

I’ve talked at length about the importance of building a marketing foundation that allows companies to capture data and insights from their communities, analyze it, report on it, and channel it into development. This information also comes in handy when you’re ready to return value to the community. One problems is that there has been a proliferation of tools to communicate with communities. As companies figure out which ones will work for them, they struggle to get them to work together. It seems the Salesforce is leading the way with respect to solving this marketing problem.

For the record, I’ve written about Salesforce before, and conduced research on the customer relationship management tool landscape (CRM). While selecting a CRM depends on your specific needs, I’d say Salesforce is way out ahead for most companies. They’ve also announced some new services that really reposition their brand as a solution for connecting cloud services.

For example, Google Docs is fully integrated. And now, they’ve moved one to integrate many other services in the cloud such as Twitter, and Facebook. And, they’ve made a great video introduction which explains better than I can. So here it is: