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FlowLight: UBC computer scientist creates traffic light for busy programmers


FlowLightRed light, stay away; green light, feel free to hang around and gab. That’s the gist of FlowLight, a new innovation in workplace productivity from UBC computer scientist Thomas Fritz.

Fritz, who began working on the idea at the University of Zurich, has been interested in the cost of interruptions in the work environment, which are especially impactful for those in the knowledge sector such as computer programmers. “When you’re interrupted, it can take a long time to get back into your work and it’s more likely you’ll make mistakes,” said Fritz, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at UBC in Vancouver, in a press release.

Indeed, while office chitchat has its benefits —the creative exchange of ideas, for example— many programmers feel that the proverbial office mate hanging over their cubicle wall can often be a nuisance. One survey of 2,220 software developers found that one of their main sources of on-the-job unhappiness is other people.

And since a happy worker is a productive worker, Fritz and colleagues looked at the range of behaviours tech workers use to subtly or not so subtly let their fellow employees know when they don’t want to be disturbed. They found that while some automated strategies such as chatroom or email notifications showing that a worker is currently busy can be successful, they don’t work so well at mitigating those in-person, over-the-cubicle interactions. On the other hand, physical, manually-initiated approaches such as putting on headphones, closing your office door (if you’ve got one, that is) and even putting up little traffic cones on one’s desk to signify that a programmer is hard at work were found to be unreliable and cumbersome to maintain. Hence, the inspiration for the FlowLight which seeks to combine the virtues of both the automated and manual at-work signals.

“In our research, we developed the FlowLight approach, an approach to reduce the cost of in-person interruptions by combining a physical interruptibility indicator in the form of a traffic-light like LED (light emitting diode) with an automatic interruptibility measurement based on a user’s computer interaction,” say the study’s authors, whose research is being presented at an upcoming meeting of the Association for Computing Machinery in Denver, Colorado.

The FlowLight system reads keyboard and mouse activity and represents four different states of work: green signals “available,” yellow says “away,” red means busy and pulsating red tells people you’re very busy — a “do not disturb” signal.

The researchers tested their device on 450 employees at an international engineering company and found that it did the job. Study participants reported a reduction in work interruptions form 4.1 per day on average to 2.2 per day. As well, employees found that the light system made them both more aware of when they could safely interrupt their colleagues and more respectful of their co-workers’ time.

“It’s kind of a like a mood indicator,” read one participant’s comment on the system. “So it tells people the state … of the owner of the light. And then it helps people be more aware or attentive to what my current situation is.”

The study’s authors are now testing more advanced versions of the system which employ biometric sensors to detect workers’ heart rate variability, pupil dilation, eye blinks and brain activity.

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About The Author /

Jayson is a writer, researcher and educator with a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Ottawa. His interests range from bioethics and innovations in the health sciences to governance, social justice and the history of ideas.
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