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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Focusing knowledge work with task context Kersten, Mik


By making information easy to browse and query, current software tools make it possible for knowledge workers to access vast amounts of information available in document repositories and on the web. However, when displaying dozens of web page search hits, hundreds of files and folders in a document hierarchy, or tens of thousands of lines of source code, these tools overload knowledge workers with information that is not relevant to the task-at-hand. The result is that knowledge workers waste time clicking, scrolling, and navigating to find the subset of information needed to complete a task. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that many knowledge workers constantly multi-task. With each task switch, they lose the context that they have built up in the browsing and query views. The combination of context loss and information overload has adverse effects on productivity because it requires knowledge workers to repeatedly locate the information that they need to complete a task. The larger the amount of information available and the more frequent the multi-tasking, the worse the problem becomes. We propose to alleviate this problem by focusing the software applications a knowledge worker uses on the information relevant to the task-at-hand. We represent the information related to the task with a task context model in which the relevant elements and relations are weighted according to their frequency and recency of access. We define operations on task context to support tailoring the task context model to different kinds of knowledge work activities. We also describe task-focused user interface mechanisms that replace the structure-centric display of information with a task-centric one. We validate the task context model with three field studies. Our preliminary feasibility study of six industry programmers tested a prototype implementation of the task context model and task-focused user interface for an integrated development environment. Our second study involved sixteen industry programmers using a production quality implementation of the task context model; these programmers experienced a statically significant increase in productivity when using task context. Our third field study tested a prototype implementation of the task context model for a file and web browsing application. The results of this study showed that task context generalizes beyond programming applications, reducing information overload and facilitating multi-tasking in a cross-section of knowledge work domains.

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