Was reading this blog on your ‘critical path’ at work today? We hope so but probably not. What were you doing when this popped up or when you saw it in your email box or when you saw it in social media?

If you are like 100% of employees (and executives and owners) you were doing something that was important to your work when you got distracted. In the past few years significant data have been published about how distracted employees are at work by their colleagues, by email, by personal tasks, and by social media. The data also show how long it takes to refocus on the original task after the distraction.

The recent data are relatively similar so here is a representative quote from the Wall Street Journal’s 2012 article: “Workplace Distractions: Here’s Why You Won’t Finish This Article

Office workers are interrupted—or self-interrupt—roughly every three minutes, academic studies have found, with numerous distractions coming in both digital and human forms. Once thrown off track, it can take some 23 minutes for a worker to return to the original task, says Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, who studies digital distraction.

These data are important for us as workers (we could get more done if we could manage this better,) as employers (our businesses could do more if we could manage this better,) and as product/service makers (we must design with this in mind.) Let’s talk about the latter:

Every product/service maker, especially if you produce things for people in their work environment, should read that quote as if the original task the employee was doing when they were interrupted was related to your product and service. This should be part of your design and part of the real customer experience you map and monitor. If you don’t factor it in you are being unrealistic about what is really happening when your product/service leaves your walls and that usually results in frustrating experiences for your customers, less successful outcomes with the product/service, and customer attrition. Also, if you don’t consider it you can’t designing innovations that will help your customer succeed with your product/service.

Here is a hypothetical example:

Imagine that your product is a highly technical device that arrives at your customer’s business in pieces and it needs to be put together to function. Currently it requires your customer to read a detailed instruction manual and then put the highly technical item together while in the office. You estimate that it will take 1 hour to complete both tasks. You set the customer’s expectation that way in the sales call, in the marketing material, and in the instruction manual. If the customer doesn’t put it together correctly as soon as she turns on the device she will have a disappointing experience full of errors. You know that if this happens the customer will lose 1 – 2 days of productive time with your product trying to troubleshoot it.

If, during the design phase, you  factored in the typical rate of disruption and known error and fatigue rates of repeat interruptions into your design, you would likely design out the step in which the customer puts together the device herself. The likelihood that your customer messes up the installation is too great and the impact on their longterm experience with you is also too great. (See our blog on the importance of first impressions on long term customer happiness.)  Once you know which part of the experience is risky, in this example it is distractions impact on accuracy, you can design it out. You can’t design out the distraction but you could replace the step in which the customer does it herself. You could, for example, replace it with onsite service,  pre-constructed devices, partially pre-constructed devices, instructions to do the installations in a distraction free zone, and so on.

Once you have that insight (distractions and interruptions are real and refocusing is lengthy) and have chosen to factor it in, you can design solutions that meet your customers’ reality, your customers’ needs, your financial needs, and your product strategy. Without the insight you can’t do that. Here is an interesting story we found about how Kaiser Permanente innovated around the issue of interruptions that were causing nurse errors when administering medicine by designing a non technically solution: wear a florescent yellow sash when ordering and distributing medicines.

Understanding and utilizing insights about your customers’ reality is important in the design phase, the execution phase, the management phase, and during problem diagnosis. Distraction is a reality in our jobs and environment. Companies that accept that as part of the customers’ experience and design successful product and service experiences that account for it will find that their customers get better outcomes with them more of the time.