Students are highly stressed about juggling all their tasks. However, many students don't use traditional organizational tools because they feel those tools constrain them.
A digital organization tool that lets students simplify their workflow and avoid stress and procrastination without constraining how they like to work.
This started in a User Research class. We had to pick a problem space to investigate. I knew intuitively that some students structure their lives more rigidly than others. Some students live by their calendars, and others run away if you mention the word. I set out to learn the strategies that "disorganized" students use to manage their lives.
I sat with participants who self-identified as “disorganized” while they studied. If they did something interesting, I asked them about it. I found that students all had specific "fidgeting" behaviors that spiked about every 15 minutes, and they completed one thing at a time, even if it took lots of Google Chrome tabs to do it. But that didn't tell me much about how they organize their tasks on a daily and weekly basis.
I interviewed three students about how they think about their tasks in the context of their life, how they juggle responsibilities, organize their schedules, and the role of stress in their lives. Disorganized students often motivate themselves with guilt. They feel constrained by digital planners and calendars for academic work because those tools prescribe a fixed schedule.
I sent out a survey to undergraduates at UW to validate what I learned. I asked them about the organization tools they used, how they liked to complete tasks, and their stress levels.
I wrote everything I observed from all 3 methods notecards, and grouped them in a bunch of different ways, looking for patterns.
Students prefer a simple, linear workflow. They like the satisfaction of completing their current assignment before moving on to other tasks.
Students often use stress and guilt to motivate themselves academically
Even disorganized students feel more productive when they can fall into a routine
Students felt easily constrained by traditional planners such as calendars or reminders, favoring flexible, multi-purpose planning tools and their own memory to keep track of their academics
Students take sporadic breaks when they feel like it (they don't plan out study breaks)
I wrote all my observations down on index cards.
I grouped similar findings together, then I gave names to these groups. E.g. "Planning Tools", "Motivation", "Stress and Emotions", "Excuses and Distractions".
Then I did it again with different groupings.
It turns out, even disorganized students like doing one thing at a time.
More organization tools = more stress (also, everyone's stressed!)
I thought about ways that a digital tool could help students juggle their busy lives, but focus on one thing at a time. I played with ways they could motivate themselves without using unhealthy amounts of guilt. I also wanted to give them flexibility of how they want to organize themselves. Essentially, the tool should be structured enough to keep disorganized students focused, without punishing them for not adhering to traditional tools.
Idea - Reminders from your future self to keep you accountable
Idea - A timeline view of today's schedule
Idea - Label "big" and "small" assignments?
Idea - Give people sections that display what they have to do in different ways (flexibility)
Idea - Conceptually separate and emphasize high priority tasks, so they could focus in on those
I made low-fi wireframes that incorporated ideas from brainstorming. Then I asked students who had been involved in my prior research to pretend they were using this interface to organize their coursework. From their feedback, I made simple high-fidelity mockups.
1. Since students like to focus on one task at a time and get stressed juggling multiple task, give a framework for managing overall tasks while deliberately narrowing their focus to what they need to do right now.
2. Since students like being able to organize themselves in multiple ways, give them the option to organize some aspects of their week ahead of time.
3. Students said "There are too many options on the interface. I don't know what I'm supposed to do." So I separated sections to present a simpler interface.
4. Student had trouble motivating themselves and finding relevance in their work. I added a "goals" section to help students motivate themselves more intentionally.
4. Since students wanted a simpler interface, Show high-priority tasks on their own page, and number the tasks to encourage a linear workflow, which students prefer but may not intuitively use.
5. Since students have trouble juggling all their tasks, a "Suggested" section could help highlight things that are due soon, or that have been hanging out in their to-do list for a while.
6. To give students flexibility they want, let them define for themselves what "high priority" tasks are suggested to them.
7. Even disorganized students were less stressed when they had a routine. The timeline establishes routine as simply as possible, making exact times less relevant than chronology of workflow to reduce the stress of planning.
This research was so much fun. Every student has distinct study habits and approaches organizing themselves in ways that are very linked to their personalities. In interviewing, I had great long talks about the the pressure of being a University student, and students' experiences learning how to manage their hectic lives and find meaning along the way. Even if not all of this made it into my tool concept, it helped frame my thinking.
If I could do this again, I would incorporate card-sorting or a similar research activity before I made my first wireframes.
Stay tuned! I'm building a working prototype of this concept using Electron.