Stacks

A simple structure for a better life.

Product

Habit Building app

Timeline

Sept 2018 - ongoing

Built with

Sketch, React Native

Special thanks to

Myles Bartlett

Read the full 37 page report
Summary

I researched why we suck at building good habits. In my journey to apply this knowledge I iterated through a few different products - prototyping a game, an interactive goal-setter, and finally an app. My goal for sharing the 'failures' along the way is to show how decisions were made based off data not emotion, that pivoting is easier when the project is founded on research, and that making something good means always refining and improving and iterating.


The Problem

Good habits are hard.

There is often a disconnect between the person we want to be and the person we currently are. We want to be healthy, yet we find ourselves snacking on junk food. We want to productive, yet we find ourselves wading into a sea of endless media. We want to be in control of our lives, yet we find ourselves rushed and unprepared. Our intentions and our daily habits are at odds with each other.

This was the problem-space I decided to explore for my fourth year Interaction Design thesis. We want to make good habits, but we don't. Why is it so hard? And how could technology play a role in making it easier?

I validated that this was a real problem through a primary study I held, where only 20% of participants could maintain a single intentional new habit for even a short period of time. It was clear good intentions and sheer willpower were not enough. A competitor analysis showed that while there is a multitude of habit apps out there to deal with this very problem, they're generally unsuccessful. The world of habits is more complex than a simple 'habit tracker' can solve. In the researcher's words, this is because "most apps simply monitor what you’re doing, which doesn’t necessarily lead to behavior change. The gap between recording information and changing behavior is substantial."

The project began on two validated premises. One, that we are bad at making habits and two, just tracking habit progress is not enough to change behaviour.

The Process

How can we make it easier?

Having proven that the problem was real I began with understanding the people it affected. While habit building is a universal problem for scope's sake I chose to focus on youth and young adults as my target demographic. These are critical years in building ones' identity, and as our habits are both a reflection of and influence on identity, it is an important time for making new, personal habits.

I made archetypes based on three broad categories of how I saw people relate to habits.

archetype one archetype two archetype three

Habits is hardly a new field. There is plenty of research already done on the matter, and I delved deeply into that. Going into the project my most valuable resource was “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. At the same time I was building a list of relevant psychological principles to be aware of in my work. I created definition sheets, to define the terminology I’d be using.

research

Iteration One

How can I use this research?

From the research I was particularly interested in the aspect of gamification. Why? It solves the habit study issues. Users lacked motivation, something that a game can provide. At the same time the only successful study participant had internalized their habit, it had become part of them (see identity-based habits in the list above). I was curious if I could create a game that users would be motivated by and begin to identify with the character as themselves. The disinhibition effect would suggest that a game would allow users to take a more relaxed and honest look at themselves, and begin to act as their character does according to the self-perception theory.

I decided to take a mountain-climbing theme to the game. Each mountain symbolically representing a habit to master, each step a visible representation of invisible progress.

Illustration is not my strongest suit. For the sake of something cute but temporary for the prototype I was heavily inspired by an explorer illustration from Vic and built a style around it.

screens of climbing app screens of climbing app

I thought the prototype was great. In user tests it didn’t fair as well. When asked how they felt about the game the overall response from users was less than enthusiastic. It was generally described as “cute” and when asked if they would use it again there was limited interested. This could be explained by the artistic style or the fact it would be unconsciously compared to the multitude of other games out there. Gamification research could also explain the failure - it could be due to a lack of autonomy and internal motivation. The character is on a single path (no autonomy) to reach the top of a mountain (external motivation). The user has no choice over the direction nor end goal.

Aware of the critical flaws in this approach, I chose to leave the mountain-climbing gamified app behind. It wasn’t terrible, but I didn’t want just an okay final product. It was time to go back to the drawing board with a fresh slate.

climber face, sad

Iteration Two

How else can I use this research?

Leaving gamification behind, I decided to explore other potential elements to habit formation I was curous about. I wanted to look more into self-identification with habits. Even more, I was curious about goal-setting. In my habit study I had noticed many people failed to make habits because they made bad goals, often trying to do too much at the beginning.

I looked into frameworks such as GROW, SMART, and SPIRO. I started designing a new system around these systems.

goal-setting app

It's easy to feel confident in a direction when you're not looking for problems and none arise (yet).

During my continued research I stumbled across an article arguing against setting goals.

Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead.

It posited that building a system was far more effective than setting a goal.

I found this convincing, and realized I would need to change the project again.

Iteration Three

Stacks - the habit app

The article arguing for systems over goals was a small part of a book, Atomic Habits, which I then read. That book, combined with Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit, and my own research, provided enough ideas to come up with a completely different third approach based off of tested habit strategies. I learned about Habit Stacking, loss aversion in 'streaks', and the importance of building tiny habits. These came together in an app design based off of stacking new habits onto existing ones.

phone with stacks app on it phone with stacks app on it

See more on the promo page