A concept for a product that helps you improve your work environment

Removing the urge to distract oneself

I recently started a little self experiment. I noticed two things: First, whenever I was working on something and I was stuck for a moment I became frustrated and decided to let my thoughts drift for a bit — and i’d always end up scrolling through my facebook stream for a couple of minutes. Secondly, I didn’t care about any of the stuff I read. What I read didn’t bother me and wasn’t interesting, and yet I came back ever so often, simply out of habit. I started getting annoyed by myself: This habit often broke my workflow and let my concentration slip when I would have needed it the most.

But I figured changing somethings about that wouldn’t be so hard: I simply used the AdBlock-extension in my browser to hide my facebook newsstream. I am still able to access messages and groups, but whenever I find myself on the facebook frontpage I see sheer emptiness and am reminded of my call for self-discipline. And it works: I always get back to work and by now don’t even have the urge to go and slack off anymore. And the best part: I don’t miss any of the information I miss out on.

Introducing Zen-Mode

During the international seminar week at my university I took part in a workshop called “Designing experience for interactive products” by Dr. Venere Ferraro. The focus of the workshop was on creating solutions to improve the well-being of the users. Together Julia Konrad, Miguel Pawlowski and I, Christoph Labacher, decided to focus on how we can improve the well-being around the workspace: We wanted to help users stay focused and create a better working environment for themselves, in order to be healthier and less stressed. The result is a concept for a product that we called “Zen-Mode”.

Zen-Mode consists of three parts: The first one is a little hardware device that should be placed underneath or behind the user’s screen. It includes sensors to measure the brightness, intensity of noise and quality of the air.

Additionally there is a sensor in the mouse that uses the Galvanic Skin Response to measure the user’s stress level: The mouse is a great place for that, since you touch it all the time and it is already continously transmitting data to the computer.

The third part is the software that has two main functions: it gives the user feedback on the current state of his environment and concentration and it allows the user to block things that might distract him.

A natural language interface gives unintrusive feedback. The wording is chosen to be personal and fun but not annoying.

Feedback for the user

Giving the user feedback was actually something that we thought very hard about. We didn’t want our product to be another distraction keeping the user from focusing on his work. Plus, we didn’t want to built up anxiety by being giving to much information: A graph showing how concentrated you have been during the last hour probably wouldn’t help you feel comfortable and relaxed.

So instead we decided to be as unintrusive as possible and reduced our software to a task bar application. The fact that a new notification is available is only indicated by a change of color, so whenever the user feels like checking in he can go and get his advice. When clicking the icon the user is presented with a little notice: We used a natural language interface to create a more personal experience and prevented the information flooding metioned above. Through a short sentence the user gains insight on what changes might help him create a better workspace or a better work-to-break ratio. This is followed by a direct call to action.

Take a look at some of the notifications in this GIF!

Apps, Websites and Notifications can be easily blocked.


The second feature we wanted our application to have is basically an easy way to do the same things that I described in the introduction: Block of the things that you know will distract you or that you know you will use to distract yourself. With Zen-Mode you can block websites from being loaded and apps from sending you notifications or being started at all. Of course as soons as you go out of the “Zen-Mode” you can access everything as you are used to. Adding and removing elements from you block-list is quick and easy, so adapting Zen-Mode to your current needs isn’t a hussle.

Blocked apps and websites can still be accessed — but a confirmation is necessary.

Blocking apps and websites isn’t so much about restricting the user as it is about helping him suppress the uncontrolled impulse to let his concentration slip off. Because of this we implemented the blocking as soft-rules: Sometimes there are reasons for you to break them. For example as students we sometimes need to ask our team partners about something and often times we use facebook as means of communication — asking about somethings work-related would be a valid reason to visit faceebook. And so on the page that displays the “This is blocked”-message there is a button and with one click you can temporarily overstep the barrier. We don’t think this compromises the concept of blocking things: Usually it takes only a quick moment of reflection to realize slacking off is bad for your concentration and getting back to work. Zen-Mode doesn’t try to restrict you, it tries to help you develop a better sense of focus.

When presenting our project we got a lot of positive feedback: Most people seemed to know the problem we were trying to solve and told us they wished our product would actually work. We wish so too, but since this is only a concept, we will probably have to go back to the brute-force method of blocking unwanted distraction: Headphones and AdBlock.


Zen-Mode was created by Julia Konrad, Miguel Pawlowski and Christoph Labacher during a one-week workshop by Dr. Venere Ferraro in early summer 2015.

We built a simple web-prototype that is open-source on GitHub:

The product video we created is available on Vimeo: