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Friday, May 16, 2008

Laptop Distraction

A comment just got me a bit worried...
If I were someone not using a laptop during a live conference session, I'd just as soon not sit next to someone who was -- it seems at least for now much more distracting than sitting next to someone taking notes on paper.
As a person who takes all my notes into my laptop (or sometimes into my Treo), it worries me that I could be a laptop distraction as well.

I did a quick search and didn't see a whole lot on this.
  • Are other people finding that they are distracted by someone with a laptop sitting next to them at a conference?
  • Any suggestions on best way to handle?


Anonymous said...

Hi Tony,

You might like to see the discussion on just this topic started by Martin Weller at:

...and picked up by Brian Kelly at:


Anonymous said...

On an irritation scale from one to Jerry Springer, sitting next to a laptop user (when I'm not one) is maybe a 3; sitting next to someone talking on a phone is an 8; sitting next to someone talking on a wireless headset is a 9.

A lot is situational -- John's helpful links were about tech-related conferences; I was thinking of something geared to a broader, less wired-up audience. (Whether they ought to be more wired-up is a different issue.)

And given the interconnected nature of the blogosphere, the reactions there are likelier to come from folks who have and use laptops, so in part I'm playing devil's advocate.

The keyboard-noise issue has a faint resemblance to smoking; those doing the tapping barely register the sound and at times seem puzzled that anyone would.

My doodling or my sighs of boredom might also distract my conference neighbor, of course.

One thing I'd encourage livebloggers and similar people to do in such settings is disconnect occasionally (meaning after the session) and talk to people who aren't toting computers. (I'm pretty sure you do this, Tony.)

Anonymous said...

My 2 cents - how distracting you are depends on what you are doing, how you are doing it, and the general acoustics of the room. I am another who will not take out my laptop in a conference session and will not sit next to someone typing away. No matter now quite your keyboard is, you are making fairly regular, repetitive noise. Some people are sensitive to that sort of noise and will find themselves unable to focus on the session. Others won't notice and won't care.

You could try a tablet. There would still be editing to do afterward but your initial thoughts would be captured electronically. Personally, I find transcribing paper notes useful to stimulate reflection and further thinking - revisiting my initial impressions to fill in the gaps.

On the liveblogging topic, I find these posts to be too scattered and incomplete to mean much to me as a non-attending reader. I'm sure they mean more to others who are sitting in the same session but what benefit is theres to blogging partial thoughts and rough notes to the world who cannot access the context?

Adam said...

@sleepycat, I'm just the opposite: having to transpose my notes from paper to wiki (or blog) is just plain annoying stone-age behavior (and let you think I'm just some youngin', I am 33). If I attend any conference, it's probably tech or learning related and I expect (demand?) wireless connectivity.

I can appreciate the noise factor, but I have a ThinkPad and it has one of the quietest keyboards around. Unless you're using something from 10 years ago, most keys are muted these days and shouldn't provide much interference unless you're in an echo chamber.

Liveblogging is effective, but only if the author goes back and "cleans up" the blog. Otherwise, you're right, it's just stream of consciousness that, a month later, probably doesn't even help the author him/herself!

Anonymous said...

This topic makes me laugh... for two reasons. First a colleague of mine went to a conference and was liveblogging. She was in the second row. Throughout the presentation the person in front of her kept glancing over her shoulder with her peripheral vision (aka the "please stop talking during the movie" stare) and final asked her to stop typing because she was distracting.

Second, at the eLG Annual Gathering, I got myself to a session early because there are only like 4 outlets in each room. I like to sit at the back near the water or on the aisle, so I can get water easily. But the only outlet near either of those spaces was at the front. So I set myself up and plugged in to the power cord set up for the presenter. So my cord was laying flat on the ground. The door at the front was closed with a sign that said "Please use other door". About 10 minutes later two women wrenched open the door. One stepped on my cord by accident and pulled it. So I said as nicely as possibly "oh, watch out for the cord". The other women proceeded to try to drag her wheelie bag of my cord - the big clunky adapter part. And then came back to tell me that maybe I should move to where there's another outlet.

Clearly both my colleague and I have annoyed people. Both of us acquiesced to the requests. It's not fair that my preference should interfere with someone else's experience. But, at the same time, if I get more out of learning by blogging or taking notes online, should my experience be diminished because someone's too lazy to carefully negotiate where her bag rolls?

Maybe we should start dividing the room... bloggers on one side, non-bloggers on the other? ;-)

Or maybe we all just need to be a little more tolerant.

Maria Hlas said...

I recently attended a conference that had WiFi and I thought it was great - I was sad that the new WiFi card I had received the day before I left hadn't been installed in my work laptop yet. There were people in the sessions and keynote presentations with laptops and I sat near them. I didn't find it distracting at all. I never bothered to check what they were doing. They seemed to be looking up and listening and then typing at certain points. I assumed they were taking notes. I saw plenty of people on their PDAs, and while they could have been taking notes, I assumed they were checking their e-mail.

I did notice one phenomenon. They all seemed to sit at the back of the session room or lecture hall. Maybe they were trying to be less obtrusive?

The only annoyance I had was at the beginning of one of the featured speakers three women next to me chose to continue their conversation for about five minutes ... so that hasn't changed!!

Barry Dahl said...

I live blog often at conferences or at least take some notes on my computer. I have tried to be very quiet (which slows me down considerably) and yet there are some people who still seem annoyed that I am using my computer. Of course I also see people get annoyed when they hear the vibration of a cell phone where the ringer has been turned off, but you can still tell it is ringing. These things tell me that there are a certain number of people out there who are just looking for excuses to be annoyed - apparently that is how they roll.

I do have a convertible tablet/laptop and I do find that people are more tolerant when I use it in tablet mode. It is definitely quieter that way. Of course I tend to still get a lot of attention from some people who seem to be amazed that you can actually write on a computer screen - and this is AT A TECHNOLOGY CONFERENCE for crying out loud. All this stuff makes me juts a little bit nuts.

Mary Williams: said...

As a conference attendee, I try to be courteous by sitting as far back as outlet opportunities allow. If the session is short enough, I will go on battery if needed.

It seems conference organizers might be well advised to create small "laptop user" sections where 1) All us annoying, clacking laptop users are grouped together, a digital "smoking section", and 2) the organziers could provide extra access to power (e.g. power stips under the chairs?) as both accomodation and safety measure so we don't trip folks with our power cords.

Anonymous said...

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V Yonkers said...

I have very good hearing (which I sometimes feel makes up for my poor eyesight) and I have to say that I do find the constant ping of a keyboard to be distracting, just as the constant rustling of papers or crackling of snack packs can be irritating.

That said, if I think this will help a participant, I can put aside my irritation (although I think I might stare down the person with their hand in the potato chip bag). However, I know some people with certain disabilities (including asperger's or those with auditory processing problems or even those with hearing aids) would really have difficulties with understanding due to the typing noise. As a result, I think it is perfectly fine for those who are typing to sit away from the main group. I'm even going out on a limb here in suggesting that if you are a presenter that might have problems with the sound of a keyboard, that you suggest those that are blogging or note taking sit in a designated area. This way you encourage those that can to take notes and/or blog, but at the same time decrease the irritation factor. Those that do not want to be in the same room with the typers can then leave if this is going to be a problem.

Tony Karrer said...

Several people have suggested that typers should sit in a separate area. I think you'd have to plan ahead for that. Otherwise, you would get into the issues of asking people to move - which already got very negative response via comments somewhere on my blog.

Anonymous said...

Excellent comments! I love the segregation idea:

"Hello, and welcome to our conference. Would you prefer 'typing' or 'non-typing' as you listen to our presenters?"

WARNING: The Surgeon General has determined that typing is bad for your health as it can cause extreme annoyance to and possible violent reactions from those seated nearby.

On a slightly different note, back in the dinosaur era of my college years, I discovered that I retained more information by listening to the lecture very intently (while recording the audio) and then taking notes in private while reviewing the audio recording.

Tony Karrer said...

Eric - thanks for the good laugh this morning. It sounds a bit weird, but makes you wonder. :)

In terms of listening + audio + review - that is likely much better BUT it requires more time. I think you have to judge the setting and your expectations. I actually doubt that many people spend the time after to go through for most content they run into in their day-to-day lives. Or at conferences.