Improving the Management of Controllers’ Interruptions through the Working Awareness Interruption Tool: WAIT
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Interruptions in time-critical, dynamic, and collaborative environments, such as air traffic control (ATC), can provide valuable, task-relevant information. However, they also negatively impact task performance by distracting the operator from on-going tasks and consuming attention resources. This thesis develops and assesses a tool to assist radar air traffic controllers in managing interruptions. Field observations and interviews with air traffic controllers were utilized to develop an understanding of how interruptions occur in real ATC environments, and to identify where opportunities exist to use technology to support the interruption management process. It was identified that operators in these environments could better manage the effects of interruptions if there were indications to one operator of the availability of a collaborator and the urgency of an interruption from a collaborator. Present communication systems do not facilitate the awareness of these functionalities. An initial prototype for providing these functionalities in operational ATC displays was designed. Feedback on the prototypes was solicited through Participatory Design (PD) sessions with air traffic controllers. Based on the refinement of these prototypes, the Working Awareness Interruption Tool (WAIT) was developed to support more efficient and appropriate interruption timing in the context of complex, real-time, distributed, human operator interactions. Variations of the tool demonstrated several ways of showing the availability of the controller to be interrupted (either through manual settings or automatic detection) as well as incorporating a means of conveying the urgency level of the interruption. In order to examine the utility of the tool and to assess the importance and validity of its features, an experiment was conducted in a laboratory-based setting. The results of the experiment show the potential of this tool in an environment representative of air traffic control tasks and communication. Although the sample size was limited, the WAIT facilitated improved performance on both objective measures and self-reported measures, and reduced the distraction effects of interruptions from other operators. These improvements occurred without affecting perceptions of the effectiveness of communications. Questionnaire and interview results showed that participants appear to prefer an automated setting of availability to be shown to other collaborators. Identifying two examples of key features supporting interruption management (communicating availability and urgency) in air traffic control is one of the key contributions of this work. The work also makes a contribution by demonstrating that providing a tool incorporating these features can improve performance in an environment representative of ATC, albeit with naïve participants. Finally, the research makes a contribution by presenting the challenges associated with evaluating interruption management tools that require collaboration between operators in a system.