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MIT’s WaitSuite Uses Clever Interaction Design To Make You Smarter

By harnessing moments where you’re waiting–from Instagram to Gchat–these apps help you make a habit of learning.

MIT’s WaitSuite Uses Clever Interaction Design To Make You Smarter
[Photo: Guerilla/Getty Images]

How long has it been since you learned something new?

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Perhaps you’d like to learn Italian, or be able to identify stars in the night sky. Maybe you even have a dedicated app that helps you memorize vocab, or flash cards showing the constellations. Maybe you even make a New Year’s resolution. Yet some research suggests that 80% of resolutions fail by March. It isn’t necessarily your willpower that’s to blame, though. Adults have limited time to devote to repetitive learning tasks like memorization on a daily basis–jobs, kids, and other responsibilities simply take priority.

“Everyone these days wants to learn something, but can’t seem to find time for it,” says Carrie Cai, a PhD student at MIT’s CSAIL. Cai is interested in how to make life-long learning a more relevant part of life as an adult. Yet in her research, she observed that the primary limiter isn’t a lack of great apps or platforms for learning. “That’s when I realized that time was the missing element,” she says.

[Photo: courtesy MIT/CSAIL]
You might not have 20 or even five minutes of consistent free time to devote to learning every day, but you do spend a surprising amount of time waiting. You wait for apps to load. You wait for your coworker to respond to a Gchat. You wait for your Wi-Fi to connect. You might wait for an elevator. To keep yourself entertained during these moments, perhaps you open a new tab and load Facebook, or the New York Times.

Cai describes this kind of behavior as compulsive technology use, and suggests that these micro-moments of waiting time actually represent a real learning opportunity. Her platform, called WaitSuite, is a suite of five apps that use clever interaction design to embed micro-learning moments into the interfaces you’re already using.

[Photo: courtesy MIT/CSAIL]
One app in the suite, a free Gchat extension called WaitChatter, has hundreds of regular users today after launching in 2015. The extension embeds itself in your Gchats: While you’re waiting for a chat response, a small box pops up on your chat highlighting one of the words you’ve typed–say, “coffee.” Your job is to simply type the word in the language you’re trying to learn. It’s a micro pop quiz that’s contextually relevant to whatever user experience in which you’re currently engaged. The other apps of WaitSuite function much the same way; if your Wi-Fi is loading, you have a few seconds to knock out some translations; if you’re pulling to refresh a social media feed, a flash card will pop up.

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Cai coins this “wait-learning.” It’s the kind of repetitive, consistent learning that is crucial in language acquisition or memorization tasks–exactly the kind of tasks that most adults don’t have the time or energy to consistently engage with themselves. Participants in Cai’s study, who sent tens of thousands of messages during the period of observation, learned about four new words a day using the Gchat extension, and many of them found themselves seeking out the pop-ups when they didn’t appear. They had formed a habit.

But could wait-learning actually increase the already intense digital distraction that seems like a defining experience of life today? Here’s where the design of each app comes into play. These pop-ups are “soft” notifications, which mean they don’t interfere with the primary task you’re trying to do. They don’t appear suddenly, or force you to participate. And if you haven’t engaged after 15 seconds, they fade away. This is crucial, since “hard” notifications–which appear suddenly and interfere with whatever you’re doing–increase your cognitive load and distract you from the task at hand. Over time, many users came to see these soft micro-interactions as just part of the experience of waiting in another app. And since they happen inside of each app, they ended up remaining focused on the task at hand.

It’s a fascinating idea: That these brief moments of waiting–which can be as short as just a few seconds–can be harnessed and transformed into moments of learning. While it’s a common refrain that we live in an age of digital distraction that’s destroying our ability to focus, WaitSuite suggests that intelligent interaction design can mitigate the hazards of our overly multitasked lives.

You can try the first publicly accessible app of the bunch, WaitChatter, for yourself here.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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