Eric St. Onge




A Mac app to fight digital distraction.

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Fall 2010/Spring 2011

SVA MFA Interaction Design

Thesis Project

Interaction Designer & Software Engineer


For my MFA thesis project, I designed and developed Obtract, a Mac app designed to track and reduce digital distraction for small teams of knowledge workers.

Obtract monitors your activities and allows you to identify your own distractions. Behind the scenes, Obtract collects data to automatically determine the most common distractions. As you become more distracted, Obtract creates increasingly complex obstacles to make distracting activities harder to access. You can share your activities with your teammates you can all stay motivated and focused together.


At the start of the project, I had been curious about the phenomenon of people paying more attention to their smartphones than they were to their physical surroundings. In New York, I had noticed people stopping to look at their phones on street corners while waiting for lights to change, and while waiting for and inside of elevators. I wanted to try and find out why people behaved the way they did.

I started by doing some interviews with smartphone owners, and I discovered that often, it's an issue of a mindfulness: People were not aware of their own behavior. I also discovered that people do the same thing while they are working. I decided to focus on knowledge workers as an audience, and built Obtract to build awareness of digital distraction.

The main idea is that Obtract monitors what you're doing while you're working. When you spent too much time not being productive, it creates minor obstacles to slow you down and get you back to work.

As you become more distracted, the obstacles become more complex.

Obtract is built around three themes:

Productive vs. Nonproductive. The design for Obtract assumes that no one can be productive 100% of the time. It allows some distracted time during the day, in part becomes some studies actually show that nonproductive time can make productive time more effective. Users can customize Obtract by marking their own activities as being either productive or non-productive.

Public vs. Private. Obtract allows the option of sharing your productivity data with your teammates. Users can post their milestones so that teams can work better together.

Active vs. Passive. If a user stays productive, Obtract stays out of the way. When a user becomes too distracted, Obtract actively tries to get users back on track.

A full, detailed look at my thesis process is available online at


At the end of the thesis , I presented Obtract and my reasoning for its design at my department's thesis festival.

Here is a screencast of the app in action:


During the year-long process of developing the application, I started the final design with sketches.

Followed by a round of wireframes.

I finished with the prototyping and development.

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