Avoid Digital Distraction

Stress Relief by Time Management - Controlling Digital Distraction and Reducing Cognitive Load

#Course Project: CS 6750 - Human Computer Interaction Research

#Course Project: CS 6750 - Human Computer Interaction Research

Team Members: Fereshteh Shahmiri, Hyemin Hwang, Chad Ramey, Prakriti kaini

Category: #Human Computer Interaction Research, #User Research, #IOT, #Electronics
Date: Spring 2017

User Research & Design Alternative


A Description of Target User Group:

Identifying the activity/ task performed by this target group which is currently unsupported or that could be better supported through an improved interactive design. 



Some of the key challenges on universities are related to students’ mental well-being, specifically, their stress levels. Stress may be triggered by academic overload, competitiveness, ineffective time management, and adjustment to novel social and cultural settings. Unfortunately, stress may lead to detrimental life practices such as lack of exercise, poor sleep habits, poor diet, smoking, non-compliance with medical treatments and so on, which potentially will lead to low self-esteem, low satisfaction in life and overall poor health and wellbeing. Addressing this issue, Dr. Ruperto Perez-Director of the Counseling Center at Georgia Tech, has mentioned that the stress levels among Georgia Tech students is higher than in general. This highlights the need for improving self-care practices within the student population. The advent of noninvasive wearable technology presents an opportunity for improved measurement and understanding of stress induced symptoms in students. Our project aims to utilize self-tracking features of wearable technology to assist students in identifying their stressors and developing sustainable stress management behavior. There are more studies focused on the stress and coping mechanisms of undergraduate students. Results from these studies are often extrapolated to graduation students, although their reported stressors are different. To address this lack of research representing graduate students, the users of our system will be full-time graduate students enrolled in the Masters and PhD programs at Georgia Institute of Technology’s College of Computing. Students will be enrolled full-time, meaning, they will be registered for at least 12 credits or more during the semester. Both male and female graduate students, above 22 years in age, will be recruited. By targeting Georgia Tech students pursuing their master's or PhD which constantly face challenges to maintain their mental well-being, our project aims to identify common stressors through user research and then develop a product to aid in reducing stress. We have also planned for communication and collaboration with the Georgia Tech health and well being center. We will employ semi-structured interviews and consider engaging users in participatory design methods to get an overview of their daily lives - work/study schedules, sleep habits, exercise, mindfulness practice etc.- and identify possible pain points. Participatory design will encourage user engagement, allow us to observe user behavior, and prevent possible leading questions. We will supplement this with quantitative data collected through a validated survey instrument such as the Stress Symptoms Inventory and Perceived Stress Scale (PSS). Users will further be involved in the testing and iterations of the prototype and engaged in semi-structured interviews after the prototype design process. Quantitative data from mobile based applications and wearable tracking technology will also be used to triangulate our findings from qualitative methods.


User Research & Task Analysis




We initiated the project with a goal to address the issues surrounding stress management in graduate students enrolled in the College of Computing at Georgia Tech. To get a quick overview of the student’s common stressors, symptoms, and coping mechanisms, we conducted an online survey. Based on the results, time management, financial pressure, and workload presented themselves to be the most common reasons of stress in graduate students.

We chose to conduct individual interviews with survey participants who had provided consent, to further understand their daily habits, manifestations of stress, and coping mechanisms. We also conducted an expert interview and observed a stress management workshop organized by the Counseling Center for graduate students. Based on the data analysis (including affinity diagram), we organized our major research questions into the following:


RQ 1: What are the self-reported causes of stress in graduate students?

RQ 2: What are the internal/external symptoms of stress?

RQ 3: How are users dealing with stress?

a. What are their coping mechanisms?

b. Are they engaging in self-care?

The process of data analysis and framing of research questions helped us narrow down the project task to: time-management of graduate students in information-centric environments (working spaces at office and home, lab, classroom etc.). We will be focusing on academic and career enhancement activities such as working on - assignments, projects, readings, updating resume/ portfolio, and job/ internship search- as the user’s primary tasks.


Visual User Story Board


















Task Environment

a. Our users currently work in information-centric contexts (computer desk at home, work, lab, classrooms etc.). While engaged in tasks, users may experience interruptions from external sources like instant messaging, emails, walk-in questions/conversations by friends and colleagues as well as self-interruptions such as task switching within the workspace (changing websites, work-interface, taking notes, sending emails/messages, making calls etc.) and taking breaks to physically remove oneself from the workstation. The users may engage in the tasks in public or private settings, however, our task environment focuses on the information-centric work setting only.



Strengths of current approach:


Information awareness and near instant communication is increasingly becoming a crucial contributor to our productivity at home and work. Furthermore, multitasking is often viewed as a desirable quality in the workplace. Studies have shown that engaging in multitasking, allows users to avoid mental fatigue or boredom due to repetitive or mundane tasks and if used prudently, boosts attention and work productivity.


Deficiencies of current approach:


Studies have shown that multitasking, especially due to self-interruptions, often result in fragmented attention which negatively impact completion of knowledge intensive task. Furthermore, multitasking results in prolonged task time and poor quality of work often resulting in increased workload, stress, and frustration associated with task completion.


c. Existing systems and related literature:


Several tools are currently available for managing, monitoring, or scheduling tasks that aim to increase productivity such as:


a. Browser extensions to block certain websites and limit the amount of time spent on particular activity.


b. Monitoring tools that allow users to track their time spending behavior and allow them to make habitual changes


c. Audio tools to provide background noise that avoid environmental distraction and assist in focusing on task at hand


d. Pomodoro technique that help users break down their task to smaller chunks with sufficient breaks for “distractions”.


e. Apps that track user’s time spending behavior and send weekly reports summarizing where they spend time and for how long.


f. Note taking and productivity management tools such as Evernote that allow users to compile related tasks at one place


Furthermore, most of the seminal work on productivity in information centric environments revolve around identifying the sources of external and internal interruptions and determining the time-lag caused by such actions



Proposed Technical System Description:

Our prototype will focus on filtering digital distractions during times a user should be working. Within this context, we expect our prototype will be utilized on the user’s desk. In order to block distractions, our prototype will host it’s own wireless network with dynamic rules that will be configured by each user depending on their unique sources of distractions. For instance, if a user suspects they are most frequently distracted by social media websites, the device will block access to Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit (along with any other user supplied site) during scheduled work hours. The device will activate and deactivate its filtering policies by analyzing each user’s Google or Apple calendar for scheduled work times. Our prototype will also test whether regularly scheduled short breaks during work times can help increase productivity while also relieving stress. The device will automatically notify users when it is time to take a break from work and allow them to visit any previously blocked service for a set period of time and then resume normal “work time” operation once the break period has ended.

User Research Report

Analysis of User Research Data


After conducting an online survey, we identified overview of the stress levels and coping mechanisms of graduate students and found that lack of time and the workload are the most causes of stress in graduate students. 36.7% of the respondents selected 5 (scale is out of 5) when asked about the level of stress caused by time management. When asked about stress caused the workload, 34% of the respondents selected 4.


To understand our target group further, we conducted individual user interviews. Some of our interviewees said that they could work well under pressure, but they postponed their work until the day before deadline and compromised their work’s quality. By using all of data we collected, we made the notes, conducted affinity diagram activity and then we were able to categorize our findings (yellow sticky notes) grouped by common themes (blue sticky notes) such as stressors, distractions, time management, coping mechanisms, self-care, awareness, symptoms of stress, institutional stressors. Those findings also further grouped into broader themes (pink sticky notes) such as causes of stress, dealing with stress, internal & external signs.



User Persona


































Research Implication

Our users reported losses of productivity from either switching between computer tasks or taking breaks while working on information-centric tasks. While research suggests that multitasking may benefit productivity, these efforts need to be carefully monitored and users need to be made aware of their task-switching habits in order to maximize efficiency without compromising on cognitive overload. Individual interviews highlighted that most of our users delay tasks until the last minute which leads to increased stress and reduced quality of work. Users also mentioned their need for a more organized approach to task completion which could help them avoid self-interruptions, such as digital distractions, automatically.


We also noticed that users tend to engage in task-switching or distractions during particular times of the day, week, or semester. For example, when users procrastinate the completion of a work assignment they might start working at midnight and work throughout the night in order to meet the 8am assignment deadline. Similarly, they might get a late start working on conference deadlines which result in missed classes, meetings, and research activities that further add to the stressors associated with time management. Therefore, last minute work sessions are often fraught with stress since the user is unable to incorporate time for breaks, healthy meals, or sleep.


It is our belief that an automated system for reducing digital stressors will greatly assist users in managing their tendencies to switch from productive computer tasks to non-productive ones. Our proposed system will also aim to improve relaxation during work periods and influence healthy decisions such as taking breaks and sleeping regularly. The combination of these two functionalities will help reduce stress for users and increase productivity.

Semi-structured Interview

Interview Themes:

1. Participant background: gender, nationality, degree program and year of graduate school, single/living with family/spouse etc

2. Typical day in participant’s life

3. Views around workload and time management- professional, academic, marital/family

4. Time management behavior over the course of semester

5. Procrastination behaviors 

6. Time for self-care

7. Goals?



Interview Questions:


We used the following questions as key themes for individual interviews. Since interviews were semistructured, we were flexible with the questions i.e. we omitted or added questions depending on the flow of conversation. Furthermore, interviews were conducted in conversational format and we did not “read out” the questions to the interviewees.


1.Tell us a bit about yourself Prompt: career (if applicable), domestic/international, married/single/family, duration at Georgia Tech etc.

2. How would you describe a typical day in your life? (Prompt: get a sense of daily activities, priorities, time allocated to each)

3. Can you share an experience when you felt overwhelmed with workload (academic/professional/family)? (Prompt: deadlines for courses, research lab, conferences etc.; any activity that had to be compromised/postponed to complete task at hand)

4. How would you describe your approach to time management (are your procrastinator, planner,)?

5. What would your ideal day look like? (Prompt: if you had enough time and to do everything you wanted)

6. How would you describe your workload over the course of semester? (Prompt: busy weeks, light weeks, how workload changes over the course of each week etc.)

7. What activities do you engage in that help you relax? (Prompt: hobbies, self-care behavior)

Affinity Diagram

Online Survey Questions & Responses


1. your age?

2. Gender?

3. How many credit hours are you taking this semester?

4. Are you a commuter or live on campus?

5. Are you an international student? If you are an international student, which country are you from? 6. Are you a Masters or PhD student?

7. What is your major ?

8. Rate the level of stress caused by your roommate:

9. Rate the level of stress caused by living away from home:

10. Rate the level of stress caused by money:

11. Rate the level of stress caused by your job:

12. Rate the level of stress caused by your grades:

13. Rate the level of stress caused by your workload/classes:

14. Rate the level of stress caused by your family:

15. Rate the level of stress caused by your friends:

16. Rate the level of stress caused by your health:

17. Rate the level of stress caused by sports:

18. Rate the level of stress caused by tests/exams:

19. Rate the level of stress caused by your relationship (boyfriend/girlfriend/fiance/spouse):

20. Rate the level of stress caused by time (or lack thereof):

21. Rate the level of stress caused by not being happy:

22. Please rate your average level of stress from 1 to 10:

23. Do you work well under stress?

24. Are you comfortable at your current level of stress?

25. How do you feel at your present level of stress? ( check all that apply) If other please briefly explain:

26. How do you deal with stress? (Check those that you engage in the most) if other please briefly explain

27. How effective do you find your present coping mechanisms

28. Are you interested in attending in user study for this project? If yes, would you please provide an email address ?

At this moment, I am not able to share the survey responses because of IRB restriction. 



Design Alternatives


Divergent Ideas

Whiteboard Divergent Brainstorming session


Adaptable desktop work surface to aid users in stress and time management

1. Morphable table top surface changes to suit different activities

● The section of desk surface that your laptop or computer screen is sitting on can elevate itself so as to draw attention to your computer while you are working.


2. Table top surface changes colors to keep users on task

● Color feedback can be utilized to notify users of when they are supposed to be working.

● Further: The desk could change colors to notify a user when they are drifted off task and should return to work.


3. Morphable table top surface provides interface for tactile stress relief

● A squishy desktop surface could simulate a stress ball. Users could squeeze and interactive with the surface to relieve stress. 4. Desktop lamp that notifies others when you are working

● A lamp on the user’s desk lights up orange during your scheduled “do not interrupt” times to notify others in your physical vicinity that you do not wish to be distracted.

Connected, smart, timer and activity tracker: Beacon

1. Beacon’s lights change color to keep users on task

● A smart lamp on the user’s desk has a set color (for instance: blue) that it changes to during scheduled work times to passively notify the user that they should be working. The lamp would be capable of changing colors to other indicators such as green which might designate time for a break.

2. Beacons are networked, and lights change colors to notify a user that a certain number of their friends are working (a way of keeping accountability)

● A smart lamp on the user’s desk will light up when a user’s friends are at their desks working. This will serve as an accountability mechanism. Hopefully when the user notices their friends are working, they will also do work.

3. Smart speaker plays targeted music to help users stay on task

● A small speaker plays music to assist a user with concentration. Music type can help improve focus and volume might be used as a source of feedback for how on task a user is (i.e. music will begin to fade out if the user gets distracted).


4. Smart timer notifies users when it is time to take a break

● The timer syncs up with a user’s calendar to notify them (through light and/or sound) when they should be working. In additional the timer will automatically schedule breaks and notify users when they should take them.


5. WIFI Beacon blocks distracting websites during scheduled work times

● Smart wireless access point syncs with a user’s calendar and during scheduled work times blocks any and all network traffic to the user’s specified distracting websites, game servers, and messaging services.

Web browser Extensions for boosting productivity:

1. Distracting websites are blurred during scheduled work times

● A browser extension or app that syncs with a user’s calendar and during scheduled work times blurs websites from the user’s specified distracting websites list to discourage them from browsing them.


2. Random/interesting/suggested item bought from Amazon automatically as a reward for productivity

● A browser extension that rewards users for being productive by buying them small items from their Amazon suggested items list.

Posture Correcting Technologies

1. Exoskeleton

● A wearable system of actuators which actively adjust the user’s body positioning to achieve optimal posture while working.


2. Inflatable lumbar cushion

● A cushion which is fastened into the user’s seatback which inflates to improve lumbar support when the user’s productivity decreases.


3. Automatically adjusting chair

● A chair which can automatically adjust to improve the user’s posture when the user’s productivity decreases.


4. Automatically adjusting standing/sitting desk

● A standing desk which changes positions from standing to sitting or from sitting to standing in response to a user’s decrease in productivity.


5. Treadmill desk that speeds up or slows down based on your level of distraction

● A treadmill desk which speeds up or slows down the treadmill based on the user’s level of productivity.

Positive Peer Pressure:


1. Micro-social network that friends can use to keep each other accountable for assignments and projects

● Friends post about when they are working and progress they have made on assignments to keep each other accountable.


2. Utility that automatically schedules things with friends as a reward for productivity

● A calendar extension that automatically schedules outings with friends as a reward for when a user has been productive and has finished all of their work.


Mitigating Phone Distractions:

1. Lock box that stores a user’s phone while they are working

● A smart safe that locks away the user’s phone during scheduled work times.


2. Table that disables devices that distract you

● Table would have a pot of molten metal to melt devices in that are distracting you (In the spirit of allowing all ideas, regardless of how ridiculous, we put this one on the whiteboard).


3. A smart power strip that requires you to set your phone down before powering on your computer and other desktop appliances

● A desk mounted power strip that requires the user to set their phone down on the desk before it allows them to use their computer. For instance, if a user gets distracted by their phone and picks it up during a scheduled work period, the power strip powers off their computer and other desktop appliances

Converging  Ideas

1. WiFi access point that syncs with Google calendar and iCal. During scheduled working times, the access point blocks all network traffic to a user defined list of distracting websites, game servers, and messaging services.


2. Smart speaker which incorporates a work timer, and notification LEDs.


3. Smart button that lights up to indicate when friends or teammates are working. When the button is pressed, it informs others that you are working and opens up a Slack channel for everyone to communicate.


Once we narrowed our problem space down to improving time management during work time, the next criteria applied in order to converge was whether or not the idea might easily be developed into hardware. Early on in the project process, all of our team members decided we wanted to build a piece of non-wearable hardware. While we generated divergent ideas, we did not worry about constraining ourselves to strictly hardware in order to not stifle the brainstorming process. For the second phase of brainstorming however, we focused almost entirely on ideas that naturally oriented themselves towards hardware. Finally, from our list of potential hardware projects, we clumped related features together until we arrived at our three convergent ideas.

Prototype Development

Overall Process

This prototype design is inspired from the concept of context aware computing particularly the automatic contextual reconfiguration. The main goal is to engage user in task (i.e. to begin work or take a break) with minimal interaction with the tool. The design decisions for the prototype were guided by the following:

  • Context awareness: the tool syncs with the user’s calendar automatically. It “sees” when the user is supposed to be working and creates conducive environment for working

  • Minimal user interaction: automatically plays music and sets timer for breaks thereby minimizing the cognitive load of user while engaging in task

  • Able to connect with multiple digital devices: able to block distracting websites from multiple devices

  • Portable: easy enough to be used in more than one location, ideal for predesignated study/work spaces

How does this prototype work?

This prototype is designed to remove digital distractions and create a conductive work environment for target users.

This prototype currently can support following tasks:

  • Automatically sync with Google calendar and find events labeled “work”

  • During time slots labelled as work in the calendar:

    • Automatically blocks distracting websites for the user

    • Plays study music from Pandora to help the user focus on work

    • Automatically schedules break for the user to help balance cognitive load

    • Notifies the user of work and rest times through notification RGB LEDs that light up blue during work time and green during rest time

Hardware Components

From left to right, our hardware components are as follows: 12-volt external audio amplifier (circled in red), 2.5”speaker (circled in purple), 12 volts to 5v USB buck converter (green rectangle), 12 LED NeoPixel ring (circled in orange), Teensy 3.2 micro controller (yellow rectangle), Raspberry Pi Model 3 (shown here with a 5” TFT touchscreen used for debugging, in blue rectangle). 

Hardware Wiring Diagram:



Software Engineering

With the exception of the Arduino code which runs on the Teensy microcontroller to control the NeoPixel LEDs, our entire application is written in Python. Our python script is executable and is called upon system startup as a Chrono task. The Python application utilizes the Google Calendar API to check when a user has scheduled “Work” events, and during those times turns the notification LEDs blue through serial commands to the Teensy microcontroller and plays music from Pandora using an open source utility called PianoBar. In order to host an access point from the Raspberry Pi and block websites through that access point, Udhcpd and Hostapd are utilized.

Software Storyboard

This prototype is designed to be a context aware, interface-less device with a very minimal setup requirement for the end user. On the device, a Python script runs at startup to automatically check the user’s Google calendar and activate the device during work times. In its current iteration state, the prototype user only needs to interact with prototype to customize default settings in the three following parts:

  • Setting work events in calendar

  • Providing the list of distraction websites as a blacklist

  • Configuring which Pandora Station Plays Automatically

Full version of study for:  1) User Research and Design Alternatives, 2) Prototype Development, 3) Design Evaluation are available here:

       User Research and Design Alternatives,            Prototype Development,                                 Design Evaluation