Designing for Procrastination


Illustration by Arunabh Satpathy 

Illustration by Arunabh Satpathy 


I started this project to tackle procrastination among working professionals. 

Final prototype

Final prototype

In my Time by Design class under Professor Batya Friedman, students were encouraged to explore time as a dimension of design. For our final project, we were asked to pick a topic with a strong time dimension. As someone who has intermittently struggled against procrastination, I thought it would be a good idea to tackle it. 

Upon doing research, I found that the problem of procrastination was shared by many people around the world and that there is a significant amount of literature on the subject. To help with procrastination, there are also several apps available alongside more old-fashioned devices like notebooks. 

I got together with Haranshvir Gujral to design an artifact to help office-going workers in the U-District in Seattle with procrastination. The final prototype (seen above) was a phone cover with a "Goals" card and a flipbook attachment. Why did we design this device? Why this particular population?

  • We decided to design for someone other than ourselves upon the advice of our professor.
  • The population of U-District office workers was easily accessible to me and my teammate. 

I was particularly intent on designing a physical object during this course as I was doing UI/UX in my other projects. 

Research Question

Based on our literature review and consultations with our TA, we came up with a research question: 

  • How can procrastination among working professionals be tackled for the attainment of their personal goals?

Research Methodology

Roosevelt Commons Building, where we conducted our interviews

Roosevelt Commons Building, where we conducted our interviews

After discussing with our TA and professor which research methods we would use, we settled on direct interviews. We considered a number of other research methods but rejected them for the following reasons: 

a) Focus groups: Though they are relatively cheap to organize and all the work can be done in one go, it's much harder with working professionals who are constantly on the go. 
b) Survey: We looked at conducting a survey to study procrastination habits, but our sample size was relatively small (8 people), which meant it would be hard to divine any specific patterns. 

The room where I conducted the interviews

The room where I conducted the interviews

We chose to do semi-structured interviews because: 
a) We would get "rich and thick" insights into participants' attitudes towards procrastination.

b) Practically speaking, we had the resources at our disposal to go to an office building and interview as many people as possible through snowball sampling. 

c) It worked with my strengths and my background as a journalist. I'm trained to tease out answers to questions that may otherwise go unsaid. 

d) Open-ended questions would help get a lot of data per participant. 

I chose to conduct our interviews on iSchool staff at the Roosevelt Commons Building on the UW campus. 

Interview Schedule
The interview schedule I prepared was deliberately neutral on participants' attitude towards procrastination. The protocol was as follows: 

Subjects: Working professionals at the iSchool staff commons at the Roosevelt Commons Building. 

Incentive: Box of cookies on the table

Location: RCB conference room. 

1) Introduce participants to study

2) Participants need to know: 

  • The purpose of the study: to study patterns of procrastination in working professionals’ personal goals. 
  • The expectations for the group: A project deliverable whether research or a designed piece. 
  • How their identity will be handled: Anonymized. We will use quotes from the interviews only after asking. 
  • How the results will be used: Qualitative research used to provide rich data. 
  • Contact person to follow-up with: Arunabh Satpathy <phone number>
  • This study is specifically for educational purposes
  • That the researchers are students at the UW conducting classroom design
  • research as part of a course.
  • Expected duration of the person’s participation 15 minutes
  • A description of the study procedures
  • A description of any foreseeable risks or discomforts to the participant
  • A description of any benefits to the participant or to others
  • A statement that participation is voluntary, refusal to participate will involve no penalty or loss of benefits to which the participant is otherwise entitled, and the participant may discontinue participation at any time without penalty or loss of benefits, to which the participant is otherwise entitled

3) Short form to fill out to collect demographic information from participants if age, gender.

4) Engagement Questions:

  • Do you feel you procrastinate or have procrastinated any time in the last year? 
  • What do you feel about procrastination in general?
  • Do you have personal goals outside of work that you could discuss with us? Tell us about one.

5) Exploratory Questions:

  • Do you feel procrastination has affected the achievement of your personal goals outside of work? 
  • How do you avoid procrastination when working towards this personal goal? 
  • What do you do when you procrastinate? What do you think? 
  • How does falling back on a task made you feel?

6) Exit Questions:

  • Is there anything else you would like to say about procrastination vis a vis your personal goals?

Data Analysis

Raw coded data 

Raw coded data 

In finding patterns among our participants, I pursued an abbreviated coding process that used the questions themselves to provide a framework for our analysis. As shown here, I created a whiteboard grid that lined up our participants against their responses to the questions. 
While going through our data, we made note of any additional comments the participants made that informed our designs. Some high level observations we made at this stage were: 

a) Most participants viewed procrastination as an avoidance technique. 
b) Most people born in America had personal health related goals. All the participants born outside had family related personal goals. 
c) There was no one method for tackling procrastination that dominated. However, three people used some form of paper and pen notes to organize themselves. 
d) Feelings upon falling back on their personal goals were overwhelmingly negative. 

High level patterns in raw data

High level patterns in raw data


Using the above observations, I came up with 5 - 6 different designs. The process took one hour, and I was manning the whiteboard. I was conscious to not limit us to an "app" format and kept options open. Further, I pushed each design to bring our different aspects of research.

Drawing a Design method from improv comedy

In my other projects this quarter, I noticed that during the ideation phase, people often stonewall crazy ideas. I'm a big fan of comedy in general, and improvisation in particular. As a musician, I frequently improvise. So during our ideation phase, I drew from what is the First Rule of Improve: "Yes, and?"

According to David Alger, "for a story to be built, whether it is short form or long form, the players have to agree to the basic situation and set-up. The who, what, and where have to be developed for a scene to work."

The prototype ideas from top right to bottom left: Flipbook, Two Bowls, #lifegoals app, Stressbear, and MVA chart

The prototype ideas from top right to bottom left: Flipbook, Two Bowls, #lifegoals app, Stressbear, and MVA chart

Following that rule, my team mate and I worked against any kind of stonewalling, only amplifying each others' ideas. I found that ideas flowed much more freely and we were able to create a vast variety of ideas as a result. 

Our designs were as follows:

a) FlipBook - A planner incorporated into a phone cover. he front page of the planner has a card that lists the user's personal goals, so they never lose sight of them. This is from a participant comment that "life gets in the way" of achieving goals. We want to prioritize goals by putting them in front of the user. Somewhat hostile design.

b) Two Bowls - This consisted of two bowls (marked F & S) between which the user transfers ball time you have a success moving the bearings from the F(failure) to the S(success) bowl. This was to deal with a common response of participants that they felt worse the more they fell behind. By transferring balls, they would always know how much "success" they had accumulated. 

c) #lifeGoals - This was an An "app" in which the user is connected with an anonymous user with the same or similar goals them. They can track one other's goals and progress. We came up with this in response to a participant saying that she accomplished her goals if she had an "accountabilabuddy" who would keep her honest.

d) Stress Bear - This was a bear that the user could punch or squeeze when they were feeling frustrated, as that was a common complaint about procrastination. The chest of the bear is emblazoned with a the words "Done? Get to work" to prompt the user to get back to work.

e) MVA chart - This was a poster with the row header having "goals" and the "column" header having tasks. For every goal, the user puts the smallest possible task they can execute into it, which I call the "Minimum Viable Action" or MVA. For weight loss, the MVA can be something like "5 situps." For "teaching kids French," the MVA could be teaching them at least one line of French every night at dinner. This is to resolve the value tension between high-stress goal achievement and low-stress recreation. We wanted the user to set several low stress tasks to achieve a high-level goal.

The Solution

The final solution we chose tried to combine what we thought were the most effective ideas from all of the solutions. In particular, we drew heavily from the Flipbook and the MVA chart to create our final product. We called our final product #lifegoals, and it used my current phone cover as the basis for a prototype. 

Making the final prototype

Making the final prototype

A person's high level goals are always on display through a card on top of the cover flap facing the cellphone. In this way, their high level goals are always in sight and people are less likely to let "life get in the way." Below are the tasks they have to do for the day in the form of a Do-Confirm checklist.

The user doesn't have to enter an MVA for each task, but they can. For instance, the task could be as small as making an important phone call, for which there isn't really an MVA. But it could be related to a #lifegoal. For instance, if the user wants to get into graduate school and has to give the GRE, the MVA could be "Read 5 pages of GRE English." 

When they're done with a single flip-book, they can easily store or replace it, and build a record of their successes, drawing from the "Two Bowls" concept. 

An addition concept incorporated from the interviews was a cost-benefit analysis. If a user didn't feel up to doing a particular task, they could do a small cost-benefit analysis of the task. 

Final prototype

Final prototype


This was an important project for me because I built a physical product, which I'm interested in and I dealt with something I've wanted to design for for a long time. It was also the first design project which I have had to lead from beginning to end, so I had to manage the time and outreach to participants. Our paper was submitted in an extended SIGCHI format titled "Procrasti-Nation: Designing for Procrastination in Working Adults."
I also started instituting the "Yes, And?" design method during ideation, which I'm sure will be extremely valuable to me in the future as a designer.  
Finally, focusing on a single aspect of design like time was also extremely valuable to me throughout the quarter. The Time by Design class itself offered a number of perspectives with which to look at design, and I believe I was enriched as a designer by focusing on a particular aspect of it. 

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