Find the Edge of Attention

Is attention worth tracking?

Perhaps you’ve heard of Attention with a capital A? It’s the notion that in an increasingly content-packed world made up of TV, radio, newspapers, web sites, podcasts, RSS feeds, and email that we could, in theory, record everything we pay attention to and then it would be worth something or provide us value in some way. Following this idea we should be in control of it instead of advertisers who pay ever more money to learn as much as they can about us, even without our knowledge. Attention is flipping that model on its head. We know about us, pay us for that information and you can advertise to us.

But it’s not just about advertising. It’s also about what I’m really interested in: recommendation systems. Basically, recommendation systems are systems that record what we pay attention to in order to provide recommendations to us. Think recommending books to us based on our past purchases and recommending music to us based on our listening habits. Those are great examples of specialized attention recorders that record only a sliver of what we pay attention to. (an important sliver, but a small one nonetheless)

Contrary to the previous two examples, the basic message of the AttentionTrust gang is that we should own our own attention data. (just try getting your attention data from Amazon) To that end, they’ve built an Attention Recorder that tracks clickstreams while you browse. You don’t have to do anything, it just sends data silently to a growing database of attention data. The problem is the same problem that us web designers have. You can’t tell much from clickstreams: no motivation, no intention. You can’t figure out why someone does something by looking at their clickstreams.

As in all fields, however, ideas are rarely new: they probably exist in some form already. Recently I was reminded of this in regards to Attention from Ray Deck, who has built an Attention engine that already works, that is making his business successful, and that is, in my amateur opinion, a prototype of what is to come.

Ray runs Element55 in Cambridge, MA. He builds software for lawyers and when he was explaining his business to me I kept hearing the same word over and over again (though he never said it). That word was attention. Ray builds software that allows lawyers to monitor what they pay attention to so that they can bill clients accurately. Did they spend 10 minutes researching that topic? Yes, that goes on that account. The Element55 software records this information by sitting in the middle of the lawyer’s task-based software (MS Office, web browser, email) and the OS, simply recording what is running, where it is going, and for how long.

But it’s not all automated. An interesting piece of the software is a panel for lawyers to make decisions before the data is sent to the time-tracking software. I think this is an important point. We can give people software to help them track their attention, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to make decisions about it. Instead of software that silently observes, we need software to help us make decisions about our attention…and we’ll need to if monitoring attention is really important to us. I have a feeling that this is important in most of our software…it should help us make decisions…not take the decision making out of the process.

Another interesting thing about what Ray is doing is that this is not web-based software. It’s an actual desktop application. This is because Ray is not your average web-head. In fact, he’s too contrary to be a web-head when everyone else is. He actually moved from web-based software to desktop-based software! How is that for finding the edge?

Lawyers, in hindsight, are the perfect candidates for someone who needs to know what they pay attention to. They bill by the hour, but rarely work on things an hour at a time. So they need to take this five minute research event and combine it with that 15 minute phone call, and come up with some number that they can then apply to their time-tracking software and bill their client accurately.

So far the whole Attention movement has felt like a solution in search of a problem, albeit a very interesting and thoughtful discussion. But Attention is a real problem, right now, to people like lawyers. And there are folks who are solving that problem, right now, like Ray Deck.

Now, the question I wonder about is: what other professions needs this type of attention-tracking? Where are people already recording their attention, and what tools are they using? What can we learn from companies like Amazon and Element55?

The edge, I imagine, is further out than we think.

Published: June 29th, 2006