This project began with my long lasting passion for organization, tracking, and the search for better work habits. Most would consider me a very organized person in both my personal and work life. While this is generally a positive aspect of my personality there are consequences that come with this life style. Often work and organization can overwhelm my world such that my push toward getting a specific task done inhibits my focus on other equally important things. For this reason, I have been hesitant to implement tracking apps in the past. While tracking can help to heighten awareness of your time would this heightened awareness also amplify the narrow focus I tend to get stuck in?
In order to explore what I did and did not like about tracking apps that aim to help your work habits I implemented a few into my life over the past semester. Two of these apps included the Reporter App and Toggl. The Reporter App is a customizable survey app that randomly asks you questions about your day. The app stores your answers into simple visualizations and helps you keep a record/journal of random variables throughout your day. This app does a wonderful job of helping you to note important aspects of your day that may contribute to your work habits. However, I found the randomization of the surveys to be very distracting when I was working. Often, when I was in the middle of a work session, a notification would pop up on my phone to tell me that it was time to report. Most of the time I would find myself ignoring the notification in order to not break up my work session. Then after the work session I would notice the notification again and continued to ignore it since I was not working and the answers would not be applicable. What I liked about the Reporter app however, was the simple and immediate opportunity to analyze your answers. On the other hand I had a much more positive experience with the Toggl app. I used the Toggl app to track my work sessions. If I was doing homework for one class I would start and stop a timer at the beginning and end of the work session. Now I have a very comprehensive timeline of how much time I spend on each class. I found this app very easy to use and so quick to implement that it barely creeped into my work session. Still however, I had a weird feeling that tracking my time for each class and noting that timing in the moment was motivating my work in negative ways. Noting the time ticking by instead of focusing on the task at hand is a common result of time tracking and I often find myself doing just that. Of course, having the data after the fact has been interesting to analyze and motivates changes in my work habits.
I spent time this semester thinking about and exploring apps that aid in work productivity and formulating my own opinions on their usefulness. Thus to begin this project I spent time researching and validating my conclusions.
In a wonderful article called “Productivity Isn’t About Time Management. It’s About Attention Management,” Adam Grant highlights some key concepts about productivity that motivated my project. Grant writes “But after two decades of studying productivity, I’ve become convinced that time management is not a solution - it’s actually part of the problem” (4). Managing your time makes us focus on the wasted hours in the day. He continues, “A better option is attention management: Prioritize the people and projects that matter, and it won’t matter how long anything takes… Attention management is the art of focusing on getting things done for the right reasons, in the right places at the right moments” (4). Thus we must find the times that excite us about our work in order to be motivated enough to get them done.
With these concepts about work and productivity solidified, I tried to find a metaphor that would help to form a theme for my project. In his well known book Getting Things Done, David Allen writes about preparing for a work session is just like an athlete preparing for a game, you have to get into the zone. I found this to be a good theme for my project. Rather than focusing on time I want users to focus on the task at hand and fully get in that zone in the moment. This will motivate productivity and allow users to complete tasks in that chosen space more efficiently.
Ultimately I decided to make an app that would motivate attention management and would guide users to reflect and change habits over time. The concept, design and backend of the app would be developed for my Quantified Humanist class while the development of an initial iOS app would be completed in Swift for my Mobile Lab class. The app would be split into three sections… the “work zone,” the “reflection zone,” and the “analysis zone.” Before the work session begins, the user would be asked to answer questions that guide them to focus on the work at hand. After the work session, the app would guide the user to answer questions to reflect on that work session. Lastly, a visualization component would allow the user to analyze their data and compare variables from their work session and guide them to make changes to their habits. For the scope of this project, I decided to focus mainly on the basic iOS application (aka the “work” and “reflection” zones). I would also develop an API to store this information. In the future, I would like to focus on the output visualization (aka the “analysis zone”) that uses the data from this API. Some defining questions that guided my project included….
What environment/attributes contribute to a productive work session for you?
What defines a good work session? (If you complete the goal? If you were productive despite maybe not completing the goal? How do you define success in a work session?)
How can tracking your work lead to more productive work sessions?
From my research I developed some key app features that I wanted to include. It was important for me to not show a timer in the app while you are working. Once you initiate a work session in the app, a timer should not distract from the work that needs to be done. The time stamp information should only be exposed in the output “analysis” zone when the users are guided to adjust their work habits. Additionally, it was important for me to include an opportunity for self reflection in the application. It is important to record reflections immediately after a work session. Also the act of reflection would guide the user out of the work session and allow them to pull their focus away from the work and into something new.
With these considerations I developed a series of questions to ask before and after a work session. The following list represents the final questions. The name tag for each question shown inside the brackets represents the tag used in the API.
Pre-work session (“work zone”) questions:
1. What project are you working on? [project]
2. What task are you working on? [task]
3. Where are you working? [place]
4. What is your goal for this work session? [goal]
additional variables stored automatically: [location], [weather], [sound level], [timeStart]
Post-work session (“reflection zone”) questions:
1. Did you complete your goal for this work session? [goalCompletion]
2. Are you excited/content with the work you complete this work session? [excitement]
3. Add some tags to this work session [tag]
additional variables stored automatically: [timeEnd]
With this data structure understood, I made an initial UI flow for the app (Figure 1).
At this stage I began to build the app for my Mobile Lab class so I needed this basic app flow to begin the development.
From there I began to build out the backend of the application. In order to store the user data I decided to make a simple basic auth express API using mongodb. I hosted this API on Heroku. This API was heavily based on this example. I added the data structure outlined above and implemented GET, PUT, POST, and DELETE requests into the code. To see the full API code for this project visit this link.
With the API complete I was able to finalize the UI/UX experience of the app and finalized a style guide for the app. Figure 2 shows the built out UI for this initial iteration of the app.
There are many features that I could add to this application but I decided to look at this design as an overall proof of concept. Thus the design focuses on the basic skeleton of the “work” and “reflection” zones. In the future I would like to add even more capabilities including the main “analysis” visualization section. Figure 3 shows a video of the user experience and some of the animations that contribute to the design.
Finally, Figure 4 shows the finalized style guide for the app.
For a look at the iOS app I developed that was based on this design and provided a first iteration proof of concept of this app visit my Mobile Lab blog.
In the end I am happy with the results of this project. I think I focused on creating a thoughtful application that motivates productivity and better work habits while eliminating distractions. Ultimately, this project is the beginning of a much larger one. I can use this design and the initial iOS app to test this concept. In the future I would like to user test the app to verify that the implementations I made result in the productivity I intend for the user. Of course the main missing aspect of this project is the output and comparison functionality. Once I verify the app works and I see the type of data users create, I will have a better understanding of how to design the output visualization. In addition there are endless features that I could add to this application. With user testing and more research, these features could be added. One main feature could implement customizable questions so that users can decide the questions that would be more useful for them to record before and after a work session. The possibilities are endless but it is important to carefully consider every addition to the app to make sure it focuses the user instead of distracting them.
Links to project: