You've likely experienced alert fatigue at some point in your life. You feel exasperated as your phone pings for what seems like the hundredth time in a day, or your eyes glaze over as a glut of new analytics data rolls in. You feel resigned to the fact that an influx of email could very well go on forever.
This acclimatization that comes with being overwhelmed by a variety of signals, both relevant and irrelevant, isn't a big deal on the personal side of things. But it can have major consequences in the world of business intelligence, where missing even one important alert can be costly.
Just look at Target's 2013 data breach. Its security team had actually received alerts about malware on the network from a threat-detection tool. However, the team chose to ignore the alerts because they were so common. You know the rest of the story — Target is still paying customers who were victims of the breach.
Luckily, this insidious problem for enterprise has some fairly straightforward solutions — thanks to what we already know about human psychology and the science behind alert fatigue.
The psychology behind alert fatigue
On its most basic level, alert fatigue can be attributed to habituation — a psychological process that's meant to help reduce stress by eliminating your awareness of unpleasant and potentially stress-inducing signals that continue unabated and seem to have no connection to real-world consequences.
A car alarm, for instance, often fades into the background if it goes on for a long period of time. Your body starts to understand that this unpleasant noise doesn't impact you, so you tune it out. You don't stop hearing it; you just stop paying attention to it.
This would be all well and good if habituation weren't such a blunt instrument. Hospitals, for instance, have been battling their own version of alert fatigue for years. Doctors and nurses become so accustomed to the flood of irrelevant beeping sounds and alarms that even ones that are relevant are often ignored, both consciously and unconsciously. In other words, the more signals someone receives, the more likely he or she will be to ignore them — regardless of relevance.
Fortunately, this alert fatigue is easy to combat. Hospitals found that by reducing the number of auditory alarms, they were able to nearly eliminate the problem. It wasn't a matter of adding technology or changing the way employees were alerted; it was simply a matter of sorting out which alarms were important and which were just noise.
This thinking directly applies to the world of enterprise — you shouldn't have to sift through an increasingly large haystack of signals to find the few needles. You should just be given the needles from the start.
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