User Research

A complete writeup of the user research I conducted for my User Research course.

Goal and Context

Distraction while studying and other issues with focus is a burden which all students face. As a student with ADHD and other mental health issues which often affect my schoolwork, it is an issue I am acutely familiar with.  A study by Claire Advokat, et al. found that “good study habits alone, even without stimulants, could overcome the achievement disparity of ADHD students”, and this intrigued me; if this was found effective for the students who perhaps have the hardest time studying, how could it extend to all students? I also drew upon research by Annie Beth Fox, et al. and Charles Calderwood, et al. who investigated the effects of technological distractions/instant messaging and multitasking, respectively.

While conducting my research, I focused on undergraduate students at the University of Washington and looked at library study spaces specifically. My key design question began as “how can we help students avoid getting distracted while studying in the library?”, and later was refined to “how can we help students to become and remain immersed in their work while they study in the library?” I will use my preliminary research to inform my own work and I have already begun to apply things I have learned from this research into my own life and study routines to improve my own focus and productivity.


My research consisted of three parts: a field observation, individual interviews, and a survey. For all three studies, my participants were students at the University of Washington, mainly undergraduate students.

My field observation followed the structured observation methodology. I stationed myself within three different observation points at Odegaard Undergraduate Library, each with a different environment: The first floor, which has an open-floor plan and a high level of noise and action;the second floor media area, which has students stationed at individual computers with large monitors and a medium level of action; and the third floor, which is a quiet study area and has extremely little noise and action. For each station I sat for 30 minutes, using predetermined areas of focus to guide my observations. I recorded data through photographs, 30 second audio recordings (to compare noise levels), and handwritten note-taking. I later analyzed my data using affinity analysis.

For my individual interviews, I interviewed three UW undergraduate students who stated they had recently used the library to study (within the past week), and that they regularly do so. The overall logic of my interview questions was to inquire about students’ own habits, behaviors,desires, and attitudes toward studying. I took audio recordings of each interview as well as taking notes during them, and later had the interviews transcribed for better analysis. I followed the content analysis coding methodology when analyzing these data.

Lastly, for my survey I used Google Forms to build the survey itself. My participants were again UW students, but I extended my scope to all UW students (including graduate students). I recruited participants by leveraging my own network of students on Facebook. My questions largely followed the logic of confirming my previous results, extending them to a larger audience, and seeing if my recommendations from previous studies were viable. I mainly wanted to use the larger platform to explore many different students’ attitudes and behaviors. I analyzed my survey results using charts and graphs, and comparing data points against each other.

Key Findings and Recommendations



In my field observation, I had found that self-distracting behaviors were the one thing that was present regardless of environment. Because of this, and because this behavior is hard to quantify and may be subjective from person to person, I used my interviews primarily as a way to explore this topic. My interviews are where I found the most significant data regarding this topic; all three interviewees stressed that their mental environment, their own self, was the one thing that would truly make or break their study session. They also stated that getting started was the hardest part of a study session for them, and this tied into their own willpower/motivation.

This was my most crucial finding, and where the answer to my design question lies within. I used my survey to confirm the assumption that mental environment is the key factor for my audience, and my survey results showed that the assumption was correct and did in fact extend from my three interviewees to a larger audience. Respondents were asked to rank four different distraction types from 1 (least distracting) to 4 (most distracting). Figure 1 in my research writeup shows the total number of rankings for each distraction type, and Figure 2 shows the average rank per distraction type.


This finding arose when I went deeper into mental environment and self-distracting behaviors in my interviews. I found it a recurring theme that my interviewees would mention that overall, when they had physiologically prepared themselves before a study session (e.g., having enough sleep, having enough to eat, physical exercise, etc.) it significantly improved their ability to foster a productive mental environment and stay focused. Similarly, my interviewees had mentioned that getting started with studying was the hardest part, and starting out with a study plan or laying out concrete tasks for themselves to do at the start of a study session improved their ability to start working and get “on a roll”, or more immersed in their work.

My initial recommendations during my interview report largely revolved around these study preparation activities, because through direct statements from my interviewees, they seemed to be some of the most impactful methods to control their number one issue, which was their state of mind.

I doubled down on this in my survey study, directly asking my participants which (if any)preparation methods they execute before a study session. A key limitation to consider with this question, as I mentioned in my survey report, was that self reports of no preparation may have been stifled by how the question was built. It was a checklist question, so instead of providing a“None” option, I figured respondents could leave the question blank. However, the question was required so this wasn’t allowed. Some respondents indicated no preparation in the “Other” category; however, I suspect that this self-reporting ended up much lower than was accurate.

That being said, I triangulated the results of preparation activities with the frequency of distraction experienced by respondents, as can be seen in Figure 3 of the research writeup. Initially, I thought most students would not have engaged in preparation activities and that those who did would experience less distraction, but that was not the case. Planning and being well-fed before a study session seemed the most common activities, and they were clearly not sufficient in lessening distractions alone.

However, physiological grounding activities such as meditation and exercise were the least common practices among respondents. When considered alongside my first key finding, where Figures 1 and 2 indicate that internal physiological distractions were still significant for many respondents, it seems that lack of physiological prep can be detrimental, but adequacy does not solve the distraction problem. It seemed that overall, more passive preparation that already fits into one’s routine (e.g., eat, sleep, and planning) were least helpful while deliberate, active preparations such as exercise and meditation had more potential to positively impact.


A theme throughout all three of my studies was that study environment did impact distraction and ability to focus, though it was not the primary factor. I found in my field observation that location greatly affected the types of external distractions present, and that group study areas were one of the most distracting external factors for solo studiers trying to focus. This was echoed in my interviews, where participants stated a preference for working alone, and working in areas specifically dedicated to studying -- hence their preference of libraries over other study areas such as cafes or their homes.

While environment was not the focus of my survey, I still made sure to touch on it. I asked students where they most frequently study, and surprisingly (or not), studying at home was the most common by far. While participants did indicate that environmental distractions were the least distracting compared to others, comparing study environment with frequency of distraction did show a strikingly high correlation between studying at home and being distracted (seen in Figure 4).

I also allowed participants to provide additional comments at the end of my survey. Interestingly enough, most of these answers related to how choosing an environment conducive to productivity was important to them.


Going out of one’s way to prepare before a study session was less common than passively preparing through activities that already fit into one’s routine. Drawing from my interview and survey results, it seems that taking initiative to engage in grounding activities before studying could be one’s best bet in trying to facilitate a productive mental environment. This recommendation may be a no-brainer but clearly many students do not apply it in their routines. Therefore, implementing these tasks as required (just as required as the work itself) in a study tool may be helpful. I do not know how to truly enforce these activities however.


Again, the idea that getting started was the hardest part was recurrent throughout my interviews and survey responses. Students did indicate that they often planned before studying, but this does not necessarily mean that they always craft themselves a list of small concrete tasks to achieve at the beginning of their study session. I think that perhaps a tool that walks users through their study session by asking them to lay out all that actually needs to be accomplished (so they enter knowing what they need to be working on), and then finding where to actually start and creating a checklist of tasks could be helpful.


I learned through my survey that while students did often use the library, studying at home was by far the most common practice. While this is tempting because of the convenience, my interviews (as well as some survey responses) showed that this choice was typically more detrimental than helpful. Students, again, should take active, not passive preparatory measures before studying and this includes leaving their house and going to a designated work space.Differentiating where they rest and where they work could potentially lessen distractions.


With these results, it is important to consider that my sample size was small. UW has over 20,000 students and I only interviewed three and surveyed 20. Additionally, as I only looked at UW students these results may not apply to other demographics of students. In regards to my survey results it is important to note that correlation does not equal causation, and so my correlatory results cannot be considered definitive. Additionally as mentioned before, one of my key questions had an error in its construction which may have affected the reporting; as well,self-reporting bias may be present in the survey results, where students may have indicated more productive habits than was accurate.

Next Steps

As mentioned previously, this research ties into a larger question I have. I will likely replicate this research in several different environments, and possibly conduct additional research to fill in any gaps. My research was limited largely on a basis of time; conducting three studies over less than ten weeks created an extremely abridged research process, with a small scope by necessity; in the future I would spend more time and be more thoughtful during the process, and widen the scope to at least include non-UW students.


The most important things I drew from this course was the tools it gave me, in the research and analysis methods. As this was my first time doing research and using these methods, there was an aspect of trial-and-error to consider and I likely did not execute all methods as effectively as possible. The time constraint of conducting and analyzing three studies over less than ten weeks also abridged the entire process significantly, and led to the analysis being more rushed than it otherwise could have been. Overall, this is only the first step for me. I will likely replicate this research and use these methods again, now having some practice and familiarity with them.It is much harder and less straightforward than it looks, but I absolutely feel more prepared to conduct future research more effectively.

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