Quit Making Me Work at Secondary Activities

Originally published: 03/2007 by J Wynia

I've got something to say to all of the software toolmakers out there. Quit making me work at secondary activities!

Huh? What's a secondary activity? Well . . . where's my chalk?

To start with, a primary activity is the one you're, well, primarily engaged in. If you're blowing the snow out of your driveway, that'd be your primary activity. A secondary activity for that would be having to mix gas and fill the tank.

A secondary activity is one that either sits between you and the primary activity or serves as an interruption to it. This can change with context and who you are, but it doesn't change the fact that secondary tasks are irritating: usually highly tied to how important and urgent the associated primary task is.

I brought this up on Sunday at breakfast with regard to bookmarking on del.icio.us. For *me*, boomarking is ALWAYS a secondary activity. When I bookmark a site, I'm always "doing" something else: researching a problem, reading an article, looking for a new tool, etc. I have never and will likely never sit down at the computer and think, "I'm going to bookmark some sites for the next hour".

The normative way of using del.icio.us is to click the button, fill in the description, choose some of the suggested tags, add a few of your own tags and submit the link. That's a LOT of steps for something that's a secondary activity.

And, it's usually an interruptive secondary activity. I often decide I'm going to want to save an article when I'm half-way through reading it. If I save it when I have that thought, I get dumped back at the top of the page after bookmarking. However, if I don't bookmark it immediately, I'm highly likely to not follow through.

Now, before people start suggesting Firefox extensions, better bookmarklets, etc., I know about those (and am pretty happy with my current setup). However, that doesn't change the fact that the default way of using that service doesn't match the situation most users are in when they'd need it.

If your primary product is used mostly as a secondary activity for people, you had better be making it as smooth as possible or you're losing out on lots of users. The pattern you'll likely see in this case is people who sign up for your product or service, use it heavily for 2-3 days and then disappear.

That pattern happens as people realize that the effort is just too much for a secondary activity. They clearly see benefit (or there wouldn't be a burst of activity originally), but they don't see *enough* benefit to compensate for the effort.

That's also one of the reasons I'm not a fan of forums and prefer email lists as well as RSS over visiting a roster of sites regularly. See, despite wanting to keep up to date on these topics, the act of sitting down to deliberately go through a list of sites and "catch up" just never rises to the level of a primary task (it's not alone in that).

However, when those things are delivered as an effortless secondary task, I can keep up and don't get irritated. All of that new information is delivered right to my email client, where I *do* spend time doing primary activities. It's automatically updated, sorted and filtered. Those automated tasks reduce my effort below the threshold where I'd abandon other secondary tasks.


Ed Kohler on 3/15/2007
That's an interesting way to look at it. When it comes to Del.icio.us specifically, I highlight a piece of text before clicking the "Add to del.icio.us" button. That text is imported as the description and the page title tag as the title by default, leaving only a few tags to help organize things and cleaning up the title if people use a poor title formatting choice like their company name before something more descriptive of what's on the page. Secondary activities that don't get much of my time are things like desktop themes, ringtones, customizing toolbars, etc. I'd prefer to be able to hop on any computer and have to re-learn how to use the default settings.
J Wynia on 3/15/2007
Yeah, I know people do highlight text for the description, etc. No matter how small, it's still an interruption in my primary task. Compare even the little work you're doing with just hitting a keystroke: no popup window, no data entry page, nothing. Basically, what we've got now is the equivalent of "Save As" + add metadata. Compare that to just hitting CTRL+S in most apps. You don't get prompted about anything, it just does it in the background and you keep moving forward. Also, what I'm doing now (having a daily batch job grab a fulltext copy of each page) actually works even better than highlighting a paragraph and it's done automatically. I know that my threshold on bookmarking is lower than most people's.
Alexander Vassbotn Røyne on 3/31/2007
Great post ;) Got my mail btw?
J Wynia on 3/31/2007
I can't find an email from you. When did you send it?
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© 2003- 2015 J Wynia. Very Few Rights Reserved. This article is licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License. Quoted content or content included from others is not subject to that license and defaults to normal copyright.