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"On low days I try to avoid my texting apps.." - one of the interviewees


Colleagues and friends have often stated their frustration with communication apps. This prompted me to explore these frustrations and investigate how I could offer a solution to this. Check out the short version of the case study below or immediately go to the full case study.

native iOS app - user experience research - product design - duration of 1 month

A digital flat-lay, in diagonal direction, of ux design iPhone  mock ups  showing multiple final screen designs.

Problem statement
Boundaries are often overstepped in text-based communication. People find it difficult to manage incoming new chat messages. Boundaries are handled inconsistently by both the receiver as the sender, and often easily crossed in a digital environment. This causes an imbalance between work and personal time.

Business benefits
It is beneficial for businesses to create an open and safe work culture. When employees are able to communicate openly and respectfully, a healthy work culture is created. A culture of fear is something to avoid. It is beneficial to get all the ideas out there in projects and create trust between employees.

Technical solution
I designed a text-based mobile app for young professionals for work related communication. Users are able to set their boundaries for reachability, while still having options for emergencies. BOUNTY gives the user the means to set boundaries and to communicate them clearly to their contacts. With available communication options being based on someone’s work schedule, the sender can no longer ignore these preferences. Just like in the office, when a workday ends, a person is not present anymore. BOUNTY restores the balance of power between receiver and sender, helping colleagues to communicate more respectfully.

Explore the full case study ahead by scrolling down, or click one of these links to go straight to a particular section:

1. research - building empathy

A survey was put out to generally explore what users liked and disliked about mainstream text-based communication apps. I needed to know where this frustration was coming from. I asked 10 users between 20 and 50 years old, a mix between freelancers, students and employees at various companies.

Survey insights

notifications are perceived as stress factors

different apps are used for different contacts

opening a message results in pressure to reply directly

read receipts (e.g. blue ticks) adds to this pressure

messages received in a non-appriopriate time or place are seen as intrusive

I could hypothesise an early problem statement:
Notifications, read receipts and inappropriate timing are identified as stress inducing factors. Contacts are perceived as being intrusive when they overstep personal boundaries. The user struggles to communicate without the negative mental health impact with their current apps.

And I discovered:

all users who stated to experience stress have junior positions within companies and are younger than 33 years

this group consists largely of people identifying as female

they were also the ones with the most amount of different communication apps (3 or more)

I created a persona, Sophie.

I decided to continue the research with additional 1-on-1 conversations with 3 young professionals between 20 and 30 years old. They all used communication apps for their job and intentionally had min. 2 other mobile apps to communicate with people outside work.

I identified their greatest frustrations:

remote/hybrid working makes it harder to end the workday

turning notifications fully off induces a fear of missing emergencies and the consequences that could bring

it's overwhelming to see the accumulated amount of new messages when the user returns online

users feel like personal boundaries get more easily crossed online, compared to face-to-face conversations

users often receive messages at inappropriate times (e.g. 5 min. before work ends) and are left with the responsibility, transfered by the sender

Through market competition analysis I learned that the most used bussines communication apps (Teams, Slack, Webex) offer no option to not receive messages while offline (not meaning notificiations here, but the ability of users to still send a message to offline contacts).

I mapped out the interview insights and the rest of my discoveries for an overview.

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This article
explains how back in the AIM/MSN days, synchronous real time communication was the dominant form. When texting/SMS became available, asynchronous communication became the norm, along with its 'fire and forget model'. It used to be synchronous communication that was real time chat, but now we expect fast responses, thus real time chat, with asynchronous communication. Combine this with the ability to always send a message and it results in a forever online state. People are never truly offline when they start using these asynchronous communication options.

After reading this insightful article, I was even more motivated to design a solution to this!

2. research synthesis

Problem statement
Boundaries are often overstepped in text-based communication. Users find it difficult to manage incoming new chat messages. Boundaries are handled inconsistently by both the receiver and the sender. This creates an imbalance between work and personal time.

Sophie has issues to communicate her boundaries to others and maintain them. She experiences frustrations when her communication boundaries are overstepped. Alerts that indicate her app activity (e.g. read receipts) and the sender's activity (e.g. notifications) induces stress.

These negative feelings inhibit her to communicate in a worry-free and effective matter. As a young professional, she feels stuck; she cannot afford to miss emergencies should she fully turn off notifications.

She still wants to be reachable and kept up-to-date while working remotely. It's essential that Sophie can communicate more on her own terms instead of communications being controlled by expectations of co-workers and her seniors.

Ambiguous expectations need to be prevented and barriers to communicate boundaries need to be broken. To solve Sophie's boundary pains and fulfil her reachability needs, I prioritised 3 design goals:

increase Sophie's power as a message receiver, decrease the power of her message senders

provide Sophie support in setting, maintaining and communicating her communication boundaries

give Sophie options to be flexible with her reachability for emergencies

To improve Sophie's experience, I altered her customer journey by making a division in the type of messages: casual and urgent. Also added, is a devision between reading a message and replying to one - splitting the process into two separate ones. Since stress is caused by the expectation that reading a message means an immediate answer (for both sender as receiver role ), this will help take this pressure away and provide better expectation management. With ideas already beginning to form, it was time to sketch them out.

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3. ideation

First I wrote down all my ideas, then organised them via the Scamper method and an Affinity map. This way I could improve the ideas I had and add even more.

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I started sketching some loose ideas. With these sketches I explored ideas on how to communicate and set boundaries, how an online status can be redefined. I shortly revisited the idea of categorising types of contacts, to see if it may be useful somewhere further down the development process.

I further iterated using Figma and made lo-fi wireframes. Initially, there were 3 types of online presence. An online status in this project means Sophie wants to receive messages.

fully online: Sophie receives notifications when active in-app and non-active (app active but not opened)

partially online: receives notifications when Sophie is active in the app

online on inquiry: Sophie receives notifications when she is not active in the app

Sophie can choose between 2 options for her contacts in case of emergency: to ping Sophie with a 2 keyword description or to have a emergency call. Contacts are not able to type, draft or schedule messages. Irma is Sophie's friend and is offline in the graphics below.

It is important for Sophie to be able to edit the settings of these features I mentioned before: her status, the notifications and the emergency options. This will help her set and maintain her boundaries as they will change overtime.

After multiple iterations, I wanted to test out the screens and hear the opinion of test users. Besides wanting to have general feedback on the designed solutions, I was also not sure about the categories. I made a second homepage to test with users.

4. testing and feedback

Testusers clicked through an interactive prototype of the concept. Their task was to go to two contacts, one online and the other one offline, to the point they would type a message. They gave the following feedback:

‘I will maybe forget to return to the conversation later when I see somebody is offline’

‘I probably forget to reply later’

‘I prefer to talk to my friends and colleagues via different apps and media to separate private life and work life’

‘My friends understand my boundaries because they know me well’

‘The consequences feel like they are at a higher stake when talking to my manager. I trust my best friend to respect my boundaries and talk it through when there are conflicts. But this is not the case with colleagues’

‘It takes a bit too long to move from a conversation in one category to a different category’

‘I need more than 4 favourites. It's difficult to choose just 4’

Observations during testing

Test users expected to be able to scroll on homepage version A and became confused for a moment

Test users tried to scroll as well with homepage B (and succeeded)

Test users were not interested in the different online status, but more so in the offline status and its options

Except for moving through categories, test users moved quickly and effectively through all the other possible tasks

Changes to implement
It is clear this app should only be focused on communication with work-related contacts/colleagues. Homepage B is strongly preferred over A, and B did not confuse the test users as version A does.

A contact does not have to know which 'type of online’ Sophie would be, since this only impacted the way Sophie receives her notifications. In other words, this does not serve our Sophie in her need to communicate boundaries (design goal 2).

Sophie only needs to state if she accepts messages at the moment, and if not; she needs to communicate if there are emergency options available (design goal 3).

increase Sophie's power as a message receiver, decrease the power of her message senders

provide Sophie support in setting, maintaining and communicating her communication boundaries

give Sophie options to be flexible with her reachability for emergencies

The chat screens need reminder buttons, for both online and offline contacts. They will remind Sophie to type the message she was not able to write at a previous moment.A search bar and a filter option will make it more efficient to find contacts, to prevent too much scrolling.

5. final product

Bounty helps Sophie to communicate and uphold her personal boundaries towards co-workers. She controls when she can receive messages and how she gets notified. She has a clear start and end of her workday by setting her work schedule. Her co-workers are not able to write and send her messages when her workday is over. During some projects or some specific weekdays, Sophie can choose to stay reachable for emergencies. Bounty restores the current imbalanced power-dynamic between message receivers and message senders.

In the profile card the status is made visual with the photo saturation: fully saturated is online, B/W is offline. This is also made clear by the presence or absence of the keyboard. The default work schedule is communicated below the contact's name and work title. The info button on the right gives a written explanation about the meaning of the status.

Truly offline
Communicating boundaries is the first step, but it is not a guarantee other individuals will respect those. To truly be offline, I have taken away the sender's abilty to actually write messages when Sophie is offline. The keyboard is gone and only the reminder button is left (and optionally an emergency button).

Remind me
When contacts are offline, Sophie can use the reminder feature to help her write her message later. This way message dumping is not possible anymore in respect of the communicated boundaries. The reminder ensures that Sophie will not forget to return to the conversation at a later moment.

A second situation that could use a reminder feature is when somebody sends Sophie a message, but she would like to reply later (e.g. she needs to finish a task first so she can reply with her full atention later). Because this is not needed every time, this button is visible after pressing the info button.

Having true offline time is important, but sometimes Sophie prefers to stay available for emergencies (e.g. a very important project that will boost your promotion).Sophie can make on of the 2 emergency options available for her co-workers:

1. a 2 keyword ping so sophie can determine the urgency
2. an emergency call for direct contact

This way Sophie can still be contacted for true emergencies, but not for other inquiries outside work hours.

Explore a prototype of the final product. The situation in this prototype: You are Sophie and you have an emergency for Ania.

If this version does not work properly on your device, try this link.

6. retrospect

This became a project about personal boundaries and mental health. Not knowing what it would be about when I started it, I am glad it went this direction. Both are important on personal level and I was delighted I could design a solution for something in that area. I had set a project length beforehand, but if I had more time I would,

test out the final design with test users as well and add a control group to see the effects on mental health and communication with co-worker

change the design based on additional feedback

add a desktop version so users can lessen their mobile screen time even more

work out the 'set a reminder' process after tapping that button

work out other features such as 'go offline now'

I want to thank all the participants for their contribution in my research and for their feedback while testing and other ideas and input they have given me. Thank you!

Interested in working together?