Okay, so you probably shouldn’t be mindlessly scrolling past photos of cats dressed up like palm readers when you’re supposed to be tapping data into spreadsheets. But rather than pulling the plug on your web browser, interaction designer Eric St. Onge hopes to use the data of distractions to help make people more aware of their online choices — and hopefully change their behavior for the better.
The new app Obtract helps teams stay on track by turning productivity into an online game. St. Onge presented his solution as his thesis project at the School of Visual Arts MFA in Interaction Design graduation on May 5.
The Obtract app lives on your monitor as a little dashboard to the right which tracks what sites or applications you’re using. You deem what sites or applications are productive or distracting. When you’re productive, the dashboard slides away. Users get five minutes of app-mandated distraction per hour. When you exceed that, the app intervenes with an alert that you’re slipping off-task.
“You can distract yourself, but you have to commit to it.”
When you spend too much time on, let’s say, oh, um, I don’t know… Facebook, a window pops up to let you know that you’ve run out of distraction time. St. Onge wanted to create a way for users to become more aware of their online choices, so he created a series of mazes. Completing the maze allows you to have access to the Facebook site, but only after you’ve become more mindful of what you’re doing. “If you really want to distract yourself, you’re able to, but you have to commit yourself to it,” says St. Onge. “You have to actively choose to distract yourself. You can’t just mindlessly click over to a celebrity website every time you get bored.”
The more distracted you get, the more complicated the maze. Feel like a lab rat yet? But St. Onge says the maze plays another important role. In his research he asked people what they did to procrastinate, and discovered a surprisingly common answer: cleaning, sorting, and organizing. “People who work at home might wash their dirty dishes to procrastinate, and people in offices would clean their desks or reorganize their email folders,” he says. “It’s almost as if the physical act of organizing helps people clear their minds for when they get back to their work.” Completing a simple visual task like a maze may feel tedious, but it can help people actually become more focused for the next job at hand.
Perhaps the most effective part of Obtract is that you can share your productivity level with your team. Obtract not only gives you a complete report about where you spend your computer time, it compares your online lollygagging to your coworkers. While this can serve as a great motivator — during testing, some of the people who tried the app said that seeing their coworkers’ distraction levels did motivate them to try and “beat” their coworkers — but not everyone was as jazzed about showcasing the time they spent on eBay. “Some users are clearly uncomfortable sharing as much as the application does,” he says. “It’s a matter of finding the line of sharing enough data to build a connection as a team, but not so much that it’s creepy.”
As you work (or don’t work), Obtract is also working to help create a list of the most distracting tasks, says St. Onge. “Every time a user marks an activity as either productive or distracting, the vote gets sent to a web service. Based on the votes, the system generates a blacklist of the most commonly identified distractions.” So when you’re surfing the web, Obtract takes note of the sites which have been marked as distracting so people don’t have to mark every distraction by themselves.
Obtract takes note of the sites which have been marked as distracting.
While making your procrastination public might make you more accountable, distraction can’t always be blamed on too many visits to Selleck Waterfall Sandwich. “About 50% of the interruptions an office worker sees during the day are triggered by coworkers, maybe by calling, emailing, or stopping by in person,” says St. Onge. But he does think the gentle yet tedious nudges of Obtract could help you find more productive distractions, ones that are far away from the computer. “If showing a maze on your screen does influence someone to take a walk outside rather than checking Facebook for the 100th time in a day, I would say that’s a pretty positive outcome.”