Meet Homer — A Digital Assistant for Microsoft Word

Design Case Study for uIDP

Introducing Homer

Short Summary

Here is the short version of what Homer is all about…

1) The Problem

Many college students struggle with procrastination. We started asking ourselves how could we design a digital assistant that helped students procrastinate less and manage their time better?

2) Who I Worked With

I collaborated with a team of three other designers: Alicia, Gio, and Matt. We worked on this project for 3 weeks.

3) What We Designed

A digital assistant for Microsoft Word that helps students focus while writing their papers and learn better time management skills.


The Challenge

We were tasked with the challenge of designing a digital assistant that helped college students in their daily lives. The prompt was left open ended for us to constrain down to a specific problem space and solution. We ended up addressing the problem many students have of procrastinating while writing a paper for class.

Research and Exploration

Online Research

Once we defined the problem we began researching online to see what solutions currently were out there for procrastinators. We found many apps, websites, and blogs dedicated to helping students procrastinate less and get more work done. Some of the consistent features were to-do lists, distraction free writing, paper outline help, and a wide array of timers.

One technique that we continued to stumble upon was called the pomodora method. The main idea is that you put yourself on a timed schedule where you work for 25 minutes and then rest for 5 minutes. You continue this and vary the length of rests as you spend more time working. The pomordora method also advocates tracking how, when, and what you spend your time doing during each “pom”.

“Procrastination is like a credit card: it’s a lot of fun until you get the bill.”— Christopher Parker

Primary Research

We did three rounds of surveys in order to try and pin point the main problems associated with procrastination and writing papers. Our main findings included:

  • Students need more structure when writing papers
  • Students need encouragement while writing papers
  • Students need help breaking down large tasks into smaller manageable tasks (i.e. writing a large paper is an intimidating task therefore students simply put it off until the last day).
  • Students are surrounded by technology that constantly hinders them from concentrating for long periods of time. Notifications, alerts, and messages are constantly competing for their attention.
My sister on her phone

What Students Said VS What they did

Through our surveys and conversations with students they told us their typical paper writing process.

However, we sat down and observed students writing their paper and found that in between the typical paper writing process we summarized was another story: distraction. Students were on their phones, answering notifications that popped up on their laptop, and constantly tabbing between their papers and social media sites (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter). The process looked more like this image below.

Students are in a constant state of interruption. Often times self imposed through trying to multitask.

Our Goal

Our goal was to design a digital assistant that helped students write papers and teach them how to better manage their time. Our hope is that our digital assistant provides a framework that helps students better manage their time in every area of their life.

Prototypes and Usability Testing

During the course of this design challenge, we went through three different prototypes that we tested on students who were writing papers for class. We learned a ton by testing users at each different stage of the design. We continually tweaked our design until we came to our final design, Homer.

Being the Digital Assistant Ourselves

User testing the pomodora method on a friend while he writes a paper for class

One night I sat around in the library for hours testing my friends on the pomodora method while they wrote their papers for class. I walked them through the pomodora method by timing them and letting them know when they could take breaks. Essentially, I faked being there own “digital assistant” for the night. My team and I learned so much from this first round of testing.

Paper Prototype

When testing the paper prototype we quickly realized it wasn’t doing the job. Our users had a hard time understanding the paper prototype because it was hard to “fake” type a paper on paper! We quickly moved on to a high fidelity design for more user testing.

High Fidelity Prototype

What We Learned During User Testing

  • Students who procrastinate work well under pressure — The people we tested loved being timed. They are used to it because they do it all the time when they procrastinate and are writing a paper one hour before the professors deadline. When they don’t have a deadline to work against they do other things.
  • Students need to be told to turn off their distractions — When testing the first set of students we quickly realized that we needed to instruct them to turn off or put away distractions (i.e smartphones, iPads, laptop notifications)so they could concentrate better while writing.
  • Students had a hard time getting started after a break — After students would take the 5 min break we noticed they had a hard time picking up where they left off.
  • Students loved Homers’ encouraging personality — While using Homer, students couldn’t get enough of Homer and its personality. The text messages while on writing breaks were by far the favorite and most commented on part of the design.

Homers Features

Homer is 🔥when texting

Writing with your Digital Friend

Our goal was to make Homer your encouraging best friend. We discovered while hanging out in the library testing users, that there were many people studying in pairs. When we asked them why they said they enjoyed working with a friend who was also working. They enjoyed sharing that experience and encouraging one another. We wanted Homer to be personable and encouraging just like your best friend!

Eating an Elephant One Bite at a Time

Through our user tests and conversations we realized writing a large paper was an intimidating task therefore students simply put it off until the last day. Homer helps students break down the intimidating task of writing a whole paper by breaking the work up into 25, 35, or 45 minute chunks with breaks in between.

When a student uses Homer for the first time this is what they experience before they begin writing:

Timed/Distraction Free Writing

Students are able to write in Word like usual except they have the option to view their timer to see how much time they have left in their writing session.

Scheduling Time for Interruptions

Notifications and distractions are all around. Every second a college students phone is vibrating with messages and notifications from social media. With Homer we choose to schedule these distractions into the schedule. The goal is to not avoid the distractions but give the student the power to control them.

“The most important time of your day is the time you schedule to schedule time.”

Learning by Doing

The overarching goal of Homer is to encourage students to adapt better time management techniques. Using a timer where you put away all distractions and work for a set amount of time takes a lot of self-discipline. Homer helps students get started and over time teaches them to do it on their own. Homer is assistive and not to be depended upon forever. The goal is that eventually students learn from using Homer enough that they don’t need to use it anymore because taking breaks, turning off distractions, and being more disciplined has become a habit. A habit just like checking your phone and constantly texting has become 😁!

Remembering Where You Left Off

After students would take the 5 min writing break we noticed they had a hard time picking up where they left off. In order to help we designed a feature in Homer that asks them right before they take their break what their last thought is before they get up so Homer can remind them once they returned. This curbed the problem of getting started writing again because Homer is able to them exactly where they left off.

What I learned

  • Interview people in person — Google forms are great to get short answers from many people but when you interview people face to face you are able to ask follow up questions. The meat is in the follow up questions because you get much more context, depth, and substance than you would in an online survey.
  • Data is gold — Until we started talking about the power of data in class I never realized how much designers can utilize data to make informed decisions about the products they are building. You can use data from users to inform your design decisions moving forward. There is also a whole field of artificial intelligence that designers really need to utilize more when designing for the future. An example of a company using data to inform their decisions is Netflix. The success of their Netflix original series isn’t as surprising when you understand how much data they have from real users on what shows they watch and don’t watch. This helps them make informed decisions for their next original series. Old school TV providers don’t have that kind of data to help them make informed decisions.
  • Assistive vs dependent technologies — While building Homer, one of our instructors named Bhavesh really helped us define why we were building Homer. He talked about designing a solution that assisted students not made them dependent on it. He used the example of Google Maps and how people have become so dependent on Google Maps that many can’t navigate without it anymore. They are dependent on the product instead of the product being assistive. It was an interesting idea that I had never considered before.

Future Ideas

  • Software plugins that blocks social media, notifications, and other distractions on the students phone
  • Online, live feedback service for students to send their progress to an AI or professor and receive guidance
  • Notes utility for keeping track of ideas in a virtual sticky note
  • Analyze writing and provide suggestions or feedback for style and grammar

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