Interaction design, cognitive science and coffee?

Specializing in interaction design I’ve had no shortage of chances to create diagrams and flowcharts. They’re a pretty common deliverable and usually a good start for seeing how you might walk through tasks and decisions along the way. Did I think I would ever create one for my morning routine? No. I did and the outcome was quite interesting. Here’s how a daily habit was analyzed, taken apart and put back together for an improved experience.

Typically I’d reserve flow diagrams for when I need them most, working on an interface and finding ways to improve how a user might go about completing their goals. Interaction design is a really cool specialty, at least I think. For someone like myself who is a systems thinker, it can be a lot of fun to zoom out and look at whole applications or portions of a product. Never would I have thought that one morning I’d take a step back, figuratively and zoom out on my morning ritual of getting coffee.

The interaction in interaction design, coffee time

I’ve had a lot of coffee in my day. Some of the best and some of the worst. I enjoy it so much it has its own category in my budget. The irony: a drip, espresso or redeye are all I ever order. No cream, no sugar. Sometimes an ice cube if I’m in a rush. This has been my habit for some time and became a routine after a while.

In the beginning of 2020 I moved to a new apartment in the “center” of downtown. This was the “official” downtown and luckily there was a coffee shop on the ground level in the same building. My morning cup was now only eight flights of steps and a few doors away. Living a cafe lifestyle as I’d call it. Redeye, maybe a pastry, my phone and whatever articles I was reading on music production or interaction design were all I needed at the time. 

I wasn’t going into the office any more, so this became my morning commute. Everyday rain or shine it was either coffee cruise with Nate or pop into 42 & Lawrence for the usual. 

Fast forward a couple months and I’m still living the dream. New city, new views, and new shops. Finding one similar to the quality I grew accustomed to in North Carolina made it real easy to fall back into the routine. 

At this time though things had gotten a little different. 

Coffee became a moment to reflect and give thanks for the things I have and it is also where I found myself reading more. Wanting to maximize my time I started bringing a book with me.

Reading two books relating to cognitive science got me questioning my daily habit and put on my interaction design cap. As someone that considers themselves a lifelong learner I am always absorbing knowledge.

Working in a field that deals heavily with how the brain works and creating products for users that aim to align with specific patterns of cognition and cognitive science are topics typically discussed. One of the main points considered in interaction design is cognitive load. 

Cognitive load relates to the amount of information someone can hold in their brain at one time. Other areas of cognition are things like habit formation and addictive behaviors.

Which is partly why I was reading The Power of Habits and then Atomic Habits. Both of those books spoke specifically about habit formation and were considered great reads from a career and personal perspective. Both of the books touch on the full gamut of how habits are created in our lives. Where they come from, how they can be ingrained at birth, how hard they can be to change, how to change them and more. 

Both authors go into detail on how as humans we have a looping cycle that is known as the habit formation loop. It’s a loop that starts with a trigger, is fulfilled via a routine and then concluded with a reward. This is really useful when working in interaction design as you can understand human behavior and create sticky products.

To explain a little more about the habit formation loop it’s basically a cycle that happens in our brains either consciously or non-consciously. 

In most cases the formation of a habit starts consciously and we’re aware of what triggers those loops. In a lot of cases we are unaware of those triggers and the cues go unnoticed. This can be beneficial when thinking about how the brain works and what it does during the formation of new habits or gained knowledge.

At first our brains fire off a bunch of processes and send out energy in relation to figuring out what the most efficient systems are for the specific routine or task. This is great for getting better at sport, doing things like moving your arm or creating a sticky interaction design pattern. Not always that great when applied to life.

Our habits are what make up our identity. It’s what we chose to do on a daily basis over a period of time that accounts for our entirety. That’s something that really struck me.

Habits of successful people, constant analysis

How are my habits affecting my life? 

Am I consuming the right content to better my skills in product or interaction design? Am I spending my money correctly in alignment with my long-term financial goals? The list went on. 

In the books The Power of Habit and Atomic Habit the authors speak about keystone habits. 

For me it turned out to be drinking water. The first thing it sparked was making my bed, getting dressed and then heading out. As I started to dig deeper I began to look back and see how it formed. Finding the root of the cause is critical. 

I know one thing we always focused on in user research when testing out our new interaction design patterns was the root of the users pain points or frustrations.

The root for me ended up being the need for a quiet moment in the day in order to reflect, give thanks and plan. Which is great but I started to question if it was aligning with my financial goals. I started to question what happens if I begin to rely too heavily on leaving my house to get coffee and can’t?

Part of the product design process is change and risk management. 

Part of changing habits is changing the routine or environment. I couldn’t make a change until I assessed the situation, therefore I grabbed the nearest pencil and paper and did what I knew to do best. Start drawing out shapes and paths until I mapped out my morning routine and had a birds eye view.

Knowing that the root of my daily habit was for personal reasons I started to understand what was working and what wasn’t working. 

I began to see that I could completely change the entire routine every single day if I wanted to and still have time for a cup of coffee and a moment of reflection. 

Initially the routine consisted of me sitting at the shop for a little while having my coffee and going through the motions. When I started to question my decisions and reasoning I saw that I didn’t necessarily need to sit there the entire time. 

I also began to remember that the rain in Florida is a given and it can appear out of nowhere. On top of it all, even though I had set aside an entire section of my monthly budget I found ways to pull back and save more. Not to mention there are significantly more coffee shops. I could begin to plan my day in ways that would allow me to branch out to other neighborhoods.

The analysis of my daily routine ended up resulting in the formation of a new pattern of behaviors that lead to an entirely new set of possible experiences. 

It allowed me to schedule my mornings much more fluidly. I was already awake and knew I had to wait until at least 6am  so I started to use that time to eat and prepare for the gym if it was a training day or assign that block for a whole other set of tasks. 

This small change compounded in such profound ways that my whole day began to shift and I started to see where I could more efficiently use my time.

Hell, I was crushing four books at once, participating in two book clubs and tackling my 9-to-5 responsibilities plus my personal projects and goals like creating NFTs or learning digital music production. Not a bad outcome.

A simple deliverable found in interaction design ended up compounding into a full blow analysis of my morning routine and alignment with my future goals. Random. I never would have expected to do so and I’m glad I did.

Go on give it a go, interaction design your habits

Interested in doing this for yourself? 

Cool! I think you’ll be happy doing so. First it’s critical to get an understanding of the topics I mentioned. A quick Google search for “habit formation loop” will provide sufficient information to get started. To really grasp it I would highly suggest grabbing at least The Power of Habit. Once you’re clear on how habits are formed you’ll then want to look at what part of your life you might want to analyze. My example was getting coffee. Yours will probably be different. Whichever it is, that’s ok.

At that point it would be key to try to identify the root of the habit. Introspection and self-awareness are critical skills here. You’ll want to start looking inside yourself and taking account of what might have been the cue. Maybe you’ll find the routine or reward. Work backwards in that case. If you’re struggling entirely, try to identify what you’re thinking at the time your routine starts, see if you can notice patterns in time or parts of your day.

I had a friend who would randomly end up at the convenience store around midday when his energy crashed. It was usually after a long push at work and his brain kicked into a non-conscious habit that ended up affecting his waistline. Once he realized this he was able to see that it was simply his body needing a break and a change of environment. Figuring that out he was able to restructure the routine and get back on his diet.

A visualization like a flowchart diagram found in interaction design is great for creating a snapshot of the entire routine. If you’re not familiar with how to create one it’s simply setting a starting point and then walking through the processes seeing where the paths lead and what happens along the way.

From there you can start to make adjustments. When looking at your visual, are there areas you don’t need? Are there areas that can be improved? Are there steps that can be reduced? These are questions you can ask yourself. Once you’ve got a good idea of the overall picture you can then make necessary adjustments. For me it was easy to start seeing that I could use my time and money more efficiently. By simply switching up how I handled the first part of my day I set the tone for the remaining hours.

Collecting all your data and synthesizing your findings into an actionable plan would be the next best step. There’s a ton of information in both books on how to change your habits and routines. 

For brevity I won’t touch on them here. Overall, that’s how you could deep dive into your daily life and come back with results like mine. I found this to be a really great exercise with such an unexpected outcome that I had to share. Finding more hours and money boosted my spirits and helped to even further propel me on my path. I hope my learnings and relation to interaction design can help inspire you too.

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