A simple structure for a better life.


Habit Building app


Sept 2018 - ongoing

Built with

Sketch, React Native

Special thanks to

Myles Bartlett

Read the full report

Summary: I researched why we suck at building good habits. In my journey to apply this knowledge I iterated through a few different products - prototyping a game, an interactive goal-setter, and finally an app. My goal for sharing the 'failures' along the way is to show how decisions were made based off data not emotion, that the process is iterative, and that making something good means always refining and improving.

The Problem

Good habits are hard.

There is often a disconnect between the person we want to be and the person we currently are. We want to be healthy, yet we find ourselves snacking on junk food. We want to productive, yet we find ourselves wading into a sea of endless media. We want to be in control of our lives, yet we find ourselves rushed and unprepared. Our intentions and our daily habits are at odds with each other.

This was the problem-space I decided to explore for my fourth year Interaction Design thesis. We want to make good habits, but we don't. Why is it so hard? And how could technology play a role in making it easier?

I validated that this was a real problem through a primary study I held, where only 20% of participants could maintain a single intentional new habit for even a short period of time. It was clear good intentions and sheer willpower were not enough. A competitor analysis showed that while there is a multitude of habit apps out there to deal with this very problem, they're generally unsuccessful. The world of habits is more complex than a simple 'habit tracker' can solve. In the researcher's words, this is because "most apps simply monitor what you’re doing, which doesn’t necessarily lead to behavior change. The gap between recording information and changing behavior is substantial."

The project began on two validated premises. One, that we are bad at making habits and two, just tracking habit progress is not enough to change behaviour.

The Process

How can we make it easier?

Having proven that the problem was real I began with understanding the people it affected. While habit building is a universal problem for scope's sake I chose to focus on youth and young adults as my target demographic. These are critical years in building ones' identity, and as our habits are both a reflection of and influence on identity, it is an important time for making new, personal habits.

I made archetypes based on three broad categories of how I saw people relate to habits.

archetype one archetype two archetype three

Habits is hardly a new field. There is plenty of research already done on the matter, and I delved deeply into that. Going into the project my most valuable resource was “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. At the same time I was building a list of relevant psychological principles to be aware of in my work. I created definition sheets, to define the terminology I’d be using.


Iteration One

How can I use this research?

From the research I was particularly interested in the aspect of gamification. Why? It solves the habit study issues. Users lacked motivation, something that a game can provide. At the same time the only successful study participant had internalized their habit, it had become part of them (see identity-based habits in the list above). I was curious if I could create a game that users would be motivated by and begin to identify with the character as themselves. The disinhibition effect would suggest that a game would allow users to take a more relaxed and honest look at themselves, and begin to act as their character does according to the self-perception theory.

I decided to take a mountain-climbing theme to the game. Each mountain symbolically representing a habit to master, each step a visible representation of invisible progress.

Illustration is not my strongest suit. For the sake of something cute but temporary for the prototype I was heavily inspired by an explorer illustration from Vic and built a style around it.

screens of climbing app screens of climbing app

I thought the prototype was great. In user tests it didn’t fair as well. When asked how they felt about the game the overall response from users was less than enthusiastic. It was generally described as “cute” and when asked if they would use it again there was limited interested. This could be explained by the artistic style or the fact it would be unconsciously compared to the multitude of other games out there. Gamification research could also explain the failure - it could be due to a lack of autonomy and internal motivation. The character is on a single path (no autonomy) to reach the top of a mountain (external motivation). The user has no choice over the direction nor end goal.

Aware of the critical flaws in this approach, I chose to leave the mountain-climbing gamified app behind. It wasn’t terrible, but I didn’t want just an okay final product. It was time to go back to the drawing board with a fresh slate.

climber face, sad

Iteration Two

How can I use this research?

Leaving gamification behind, I decided to explore other potential elements to habit formation I was curous about. I wanted to look more into self-identification with habits. Even more, I was curious about goal-setting. In my habit study I had noticed many people failed to make habits because they made bad goals, often trying to do too much at the beginning.

I took a step back from design to do more research. I did a personal habit photo journal where every morning I would take a picture of myself doing the habit and write a caption. I did this with a brief 5 minute meditation. Each day I would look over previous pictures, the goal to help me identify as someone who meditates. By the time I finished I had mixed feelings:

“Feel unsure overall about it. Sometimes definitely more of a distraction than a help. But as I started to build it up I got more attached to it. I still feel like sometimes I have to remind myself they’re pictures related to the meditations. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of selfies. But there is this kind of a pull toward it. I don’t think I’m attached but surprisingly hard to let go of either. It’s more personable than just a bunch of checkmarks. It’s like a reminder ‘Wow. That was me. I actually did that.’ And I keep looking back and feeling weird about it. I think it might have made me aware I don’t see myself as someone who meditates and actually created some cognitive dissonance”

At the same time I did further research into the goal-setting. I looked into frameworks such as GROW, SMART, and SPIRO. I started designing a new system around this.

goal-setting app

It's easy to feel confident in a direction when you're not looking for problems and none arise (yet).

During my continued research I stumbled across an article arguing against setting goals.


It posited that building a system was far more effective than setting a goal.

I found this convincing, and realized I would need to change the project again.

Iteration Three

Stacks - the habit app

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