Inattentive use of electronic equipment

That was the title of my Ph.D. thesis. An investigation of how we use electronic equipment when our attention is not focused on it. As one example, when I write on a word processor and focus on what I want to express, instead of thinking about, how to operate the functions of the word processor.

Uopmærksom brug af elektronisk udstyr

Det var titlen på mit Ph.D. projekt. En undersøgelse af, hvordan vi bruger elektronisk udstyr, når opmærksomheden er på noget andet. For eksempel når jeg skriver på en computer og koncentrerer mig om det jeg vil udtrykke, i stedet for at tænke over hvordan jeg skal betjene computeren.

Summary of the thesis in English

Sammenfatning af afhandlingen - Summary of the thesis in Danish

Hvor og hvornår lavede jeg min afhandling (længere nede på siden)

Description of the work process when making the thesis (interesting and below on this page)

Populær beskrivelse, se artiklen Når tingene driller

Download the entire thesis in Adobe Acrobat

Contents and index

Chapters 1-10

Chapters 11-17 and Litt.

Hvor og hvornår lavede jeg afhandlingen

Mit Ph.D. projekt blev lavet på Datalogisk Institut, Københavns Universitet med Peter Naur som vejleder. Jeg startede i december 1992 og indleverede afhandlingen i maj 1996. Min Ph.D. forelæsning var 20. September 1996. Den blev refereret i BT - som den første og sikkert også eneste Ph.D. fra Datalogisk Institut.

Description of the work proces when making the thesis

From the foreword of my thesis:

In 1992 I had worked in Motorola for 6 years. I had myself designed the user interface for a product which sold for about 120 M Danisk kr. (about 20 M §), but I had also seen a number of products with extremely bad user interfaces. I was fed up with products that clearly were not designed for human beings, and I had had enough of persons who thought everybody could design a good user interface if only they were part of a committee.

In the summer of 1992 I therefore wanted to do something, but did not at first realise what I wanted to do.

Originally, I thought about working on mathematical models of signalling in communication systems. Fortunately, that project became impossible, and I started to think about what to do if I just wanted to have fun. The result was Inattentive Use, the theme of this book, and I had the good luck of meeting a tutor–Peter Naur–for a Ph.D. thesis who thought an investigation of Inattentive Use might lead to some interesting insights, so I could start the work on a Ph.D. thesis in december 1992.

However, I had no idea what I should do about the Inattentive Use so I started to draw little boxes while I read about experiments with mice running through mazes and signals running through nerves, and I could probably have spend three happy years in the same manner if my tutor had not ordered me to start reading William James, founder of the cognitive psychology.

In the beginning reading William James was very tough–I had to take frequent breaks and lie still with closed eyes when I was overwhelmed with his 1280 pages of massive words.

At the same time I had no grant and could not combine a decent job with the reading of William James, so I started working as a free-lance technical writer.

I spend a little more than one year in that manner–reading William James and writing user guides and a book about the use of cellular phones.

At that stage, I felt a need for some experiments; they should primarily provide information about the relation between patterns of thought and the perception of an external object. I knew that one of the secrets of successful bridge playing is the drilling of some fairly simple guidelines for bidding and playing, so it was fairly obvious to make an experiment with bridge players. The experiment had to be in the evening in march 1994, five kilometres from where I lived, and I had no car. When I had gone half the way on bicycle and was drenched by the rain, the whole enterprise seemed totally silly, and if it had not been even more silly to turn around when I was wet already, I would have gone home immediately. However, I made the experiment and got some useful results.

Shortly after, in june 1994, there was a conference in Copenhagen where I was asked to present a paper. That was very valuable for me: I had to start thinking about what I already knew and what I wanted to find out, and I decided to get a decent spell checker for my computer. Unfortunately, I could not find a decent contents checker.

I was still reading William James, but I wanted to find something more recent or at least something that looked more like a good clean technical model–something with square boxes, and words like signals and processors and voting algorithms.

The result was that I spend the time fighting with my tutor and digging myself deeper and deeper down in mud, until at last, in january 1995, I had a disastrous meeting with him: My working papers documented clearly that I had no idea about what to do with the project–and I had to admit that I during the past months had produced a significant amount of total garbage.

I hit the bottom, rebounded and swam towards the light. Something had snapped and I began to see a pattern in what I was doing and in all the different stuff I had read. At that stage I started to write chapter 7., the first part of the book as it appears today.

Then everything moved fast: I knew what I was looking for and I had the tools I needed for looking for it. Incidentally, I learned that approximately half of the times psychologists describe the results of experiments made by other psychologists, they misrepresent the results, so if the results shall be used for something serious it is necessary to go back and read the undiluted version.

In six months I found and wrote together most of the theory while I made user guides for a number of interesting machines, including a bulldozer and a heavy duty truck.

At that stage the speed of work slowed down somewhat.

As a result of the work I had made an invention, and an invention tends to influence human thinking in the same manner as rumours about gold in a nearby river. Therefore, I stopped thinking about the writing and made some experiments that confirmed the invention technically was a success. Later on it turned out that the invention commercially was no success.

At the same time I reached a stage where I wanted to demonstrate the ideas–preferably by using the different design principles in the design of something that resembled user interfaces for possible pieces of electronic equipment.

First, I planned to make a simulated phone with 37 or 48 different parameters whose influences I wanted to determine. The result was total confusion: It might be possible to use the result as a case study in something, but it could not be used for designing any meaningful piece of equipment.

After that I made an extremely disorderly description of a second phone. I believe the phone combined all the different principles for a phone for inattentive use, but it had to be a matter of belief, because even I found the description difficult to understand.

At the end I worked on three things in parallel: I tried to find ways of applying the different design principles, I designed some working user interfaces, and I found and described methods that could make a successful design easier.

And right now I am sitting late in the evening, with an almost completed book, a sink full of dirty dishes and a peculiar peace of mind.

February 3, 1996

(The writing finished in February, but the editing of the project was completed in April 1996.)

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