The Effects of Task Difficulty and Multitasking on Performance
Multitasking is prevalent during computer-mediated work. Users tend to switch between multiple ongoing computer-based tasks either due to a personal decision to break from the current task (self-interruption) or due to an external interruption, such as an electronic notification. To examine how different types of multitasking, along with subjective task difficulty, influence performance, we conducted a controlled experiment using a custom-developed multitasking environment. A total of 636 subjects were randomly assigned into one of the three conditions: discretionary, where they were allowed to decide when and how often to switch tasks; mandatory, where they were forced to switch tasks at specific times; and sequential, where they had to perform tasks in sequence, without switching. The experimental environment featured a primary problem-solving task and five secondary tasks. The results show that when the primary task was considered difficult, subjects forced to multitask had significantly lower performance compared with not only the subjects who did not multitask but also the subjects who were able to multitask at their discretion. Conversely, when the primary task was considered easy, subjects forced to multitask had significantly higher performance than both the subjects who did not multitask and the subjects who multitasked at their discretion.
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Interacting with Computers
Adler, Rachel F. and Benbunan-Fich, Raquel, "The Effects of Task Difficulty and Multitasking on Performance" (2015). Computer Science Faculty Publications. 7.