Attention Coach

A nudge towards focus

Concept Overview

Attention Coach is your personal trainer for cultivating focus. Users choose between three coach personalities–gentle, strict or playful–based on the kind of support they need and when distraction appears, the coach is front and center to guide them through it.

The goal of this system is to help people overcome the hurdles that prevent them from aligning your actions with their intentions. It is also designed to serve as probes to understand the kind of personalities and approaches that potential users resonate (or don’t resonate) with.

Relevant Research

  • The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress” [1]: Mark et al. discovered that we incur something called switch costs every time we switch from one task to another. This is the time and effort required to refocus our attention. Why is this important? Well, every time we check a that new message, or reply to that one email or view that comment someone posted on Facebook in the middle of doing work, we’re essentially multitasking. According to this study, multitasking can cause people to experience “a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure, and effort”.

How It Works

The following work showcases examples of how the three coach personalities would nudge users towards focus through three scenarios.

  • Scenario 1 (work-related multitasking): The user shifts attention between two documents that are open. While the two are related to the same task, frequent shifting of attention between the two documents may prevent users from diving deep into their work.
  • Scenario 2 (non-work multitasking): Users’ desktop shows that a lot of multitasking is prevalent. For example, the user is distracted from primary goal by new updates.
  • Scenario 3 (limiting access to certain websites): User wants to reduce time spent on websites that distract attention from primary goal, such as Netflix. However, they are now attempting to access Netflix in the middle of a work session.

Personality: Gentle

The gentle coach provides support and encouragement to users, but ultimately leaves it to them to make final decisions.

Peripheral attention helps determine where we channel our attention next. This coach creates a subtle focal area by dimming the area surrounding the currently active window. In doing so, it removing extra information in the users’ peripheral attention, aiming to reduce the chances of external elements from catching their attention.

Scenario 1

Somewhat similar to the previous scenario, the coach aims to bring focus to applications pertaining to our primary goal by adding a glow around the window. Marking a window with a star communicates to the system that it is important for the task at hand.

Scenario 2

In this scenario, the coach gives users a chance to pause as the page loads. While this takes place, the page displays an inspirational quote to evoke reflection along with a progress bar to visualize the time remaining before the page is fully loaded.

Scenario 3

Personality: Strict

The strict coach adopts a more firm approach to disciplining users. When necessary, it uses “tough-love” to ensure users adhere to their stated goals and is not afraid to say no.

With this coach sees frequent multitasking, it increases the time taken to switch from one application or window to another. Of course, if users only switch occasionally, they will not see any change in their experience. It is only when they engage in rapid multitasking that the coach steps in.

By progressively increasing the time taken to switch, it not only introduces a micro-boundary that slows down multitasking but also gives users a the time to reflect on whether they really want to leave what they are doing.

Scenario 1

When users start to stray away from their primary goal, perhaps by spending too much time on websites they have marked as “distractions”, the strict coach takes it upon itself to lock the primary window in full screen mode while disabling additional features, such as creating new tabs and switching to other applications. This lock lasts for 25 minutes, following which users can continue to do what they want. In doing so, the coach hopes to help users stay on track and push past the distractions.

Scenario 2

Unlike the Gentle Coach that offers users more freedom to make decisions, the Strict Coach is not afraid of putting its foot down to help users stick to their goals. In this case, the coach blocks Netflix because the user has already surpassed their use limit for this website.

Scenario 3

Personality: Playful

The Playful Coach takes an indirect approach to helping users keep their attention on their goals. While the previous two coaches gave users high and low levels of autonomy respectively, this coach lies somewhere in the middle by allowing users to make decisions for themselves but making it harder for them.

In this scenario, the Playful Coach adopts a “moving target” approach to make it hard for users to click the yes button. It hopes that the user will eventually give up and go back to what they were doing before.

Scenario 1

When this coach sees users distracted by the news, it gradually alters the darkness of that window to indicate to them that it’s time to shift back to work. If they don’t switch back, they will eventually find themselves with a news window that is now totally black.

Scenario 2

Finally, this coach makes users work for their Netflix time by burying the button. If they want it, they need to scroll for it. And, they never know what size, shape or color to look for.

Scenario 3

Future Work

  • Explore how these personalities would intervene in additional scenarios while ensuring consistency across all scenarios.
  • Develop setup and learning process–how users customize their experience?
  • Identify other personalities to test with potential users.


[1] The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress, Mark et al.