Auster: short for Austerity, is a consumer accountability app to encourage Catholic minimalism, environmentalism, and charity.
Project Year: 2021
This project was frankly speaking, the result of me sitting in my room one day and thinking it would be fun to build something for myself, and perhaps of course, create something that I could showcase in my portfolio.
Nonetheless, it happens to be my favourite project.
Brief context: Being quite a minimalist, I was on my laptop one day trying to create a list of every item I own. (like every minimalist would do) As I was doing this, it came to me that it would be great to have an app that could do all this in a much more efficient, and perhaps enjoyable and functional way.
And that was the beginning of the “Auster” project.
When COVID-19 hit, Gabriel’s plans were wrecked.
He had looked forward to graduating school and travelling the world as a digital nomad, making a living off the internet and all that jazz. With travel so tightly restricted, the next best thing he can do is plan and prepare for when travel does open up.
During this period, he’s also had a lot of time to go deeper into his faith, spending more time in prayer with apps like the Hallow App.
He’s also been able to explore other aspects of the faith, such as “Laudato Si‘”, the idea that Catholics have a moral duty to be stewards of our earth.
Being a rather conservative guy, he’s never been into the whole idea of “environmentalism“. However, reflection and contemplation on the meaning of life has opened him up to it.
Besides, he now sees the value of living a simpler life and owning less things, and how his Catholic faith can tie into it. After all, the Franciscan monks are all about not owning anything!
He also realises that he hates the way people consume and waste products, when they could just invest in a few quality items that last longer.
He wishes he could have an inventory of all the things he owns, in order to have a better idea of what he needs and doesn’t need.
Although he wants to be a digital nomad and “live out of a suitcase“, clearly he’s still going to have some belongings back at his family home. He’s also got video equipment at his home base.
Plus, clearly not everything can fit into one bag, as much of a dream that may be. If only there was a way to assign his items to different bags…
Even so, then comes the problem of all the different scenarios he could be in. A weekend trip to Paris? A video shoot? Moving home base to Portugal for 3 months?
“My icon collection isn’t always going to go in the same bag for all those situations! And my backpack doesn’t always need to contain my toothbrush, that would be awkward to explain when visiting a lady friend…”
He also finds getting rid of unnecessary items to be very stress-relieving and satisfying. However, he feels guilty that he often just throws things away, or can’t figure out what to do with it, and ends up keeping it.
Both results leave him unsatisfied.
He has tried to create excel sheets, and even Notion tables, but nothing seems to work. “How do other people do this? Do they just wing it? Well not me, I NEED to have everything DOCUMENTED.”
The first problem I sought to solve was how the app could facilitate owning less. Of course, my research included the famous Marie kondo, the netflix phenomenon that sparked a series of viral memes based on her catchphrase: “Does this spark joy?”
That was it. Well, not exactly. But there was definitely something there.
What Marie was essentially doing was getting people to reflect on how they really felt about an item. Because why would you keep items around if it didn’t “spark joy?”
Perhaps for most people, it isn’t that simple. Some things, we just need. Like that toilet plunger. That doesn’t spark joy.
But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, what if there was a more “flexible” way of practicing this “mindfulness” over how you feel about the items you own?
The solution was clear to me as a WordPress developer. Tags.
I experimented with a few “statuses” in Notion. And after some mental gymnastics and visualisation, I figured it was a solid idea and decided to just roll with it.
The second problem I sought to solve was to create a system to help people own less, but in an environmentally friendly way.
Of course, in the spirit of Laudato Si’, the best way to get rid of items would be to either recycle them, or donate them to a charity or someone in need.
The conclusion was, that there should probably be a way for users to mark out items for donation or recycling, and the app would have an easily accessible list of those items.
The plan was initially to add a button on each item to mark it under one of those tags.
Seemed simple enough at first, though I realised later on in the project through user feedback that there was some flaw in the UX logic here.
I decided to start with the basic building block that the entire app would revolve around. The item. It occurred to me that this app would work exactly like a CMS system, with categories, tags, and different archive pages with different queries. Seemed simple enough, didn’t it?
I started with a list of fields and tags each item would need.
Item name (text field)
The minimum information needed to make an entry
Category and sub-category (tag)
Status (choose tag from predefined selection)
How does this item make you feel?
Lists and Bags (tag)
Quantity (number field)
How many of this item do you own?
Where do you keep this/can it be found?
Weight (number field)
Will come in handy when calculating total bag weight
Value (number field)
Great for insurance purposes…
Don’t you hate keeping warranty cards? Would be great if you could just snap a pic and know where to find it…
Linked to (relation)
What on earth is this random cable for? Oh… it’s for thoseee headphones…
I started with getting these pages down first, as every other page would essentially be an archive page with different display queries of the items according to their different tags.
Perhaps I can be a little impatient sometimes when it gets to getting the sketches into Adobe XD.
Okay, let’s be real. I did do some rough designs in Adobe XD at the start, but for the sake of the chronology let’s just pretend I didn’t.
I shared the idea with my family (hey, it’s a personal project) and they thought it was a great idea. In fact, they liked it so much that they wanted to implement the system to the whole home. At first, I thought that would be difficult. But it was worth a shot. After all, if this could be marketed as a home solution, it could provide a lot more value. Besides, if this app is going to be for Catholics, it better be catered for large families!
So began the task of creating a way to assign items to owners.
My first idea was to create owner tags, keep it straightforward right? Just have a label on each item for what belongs to who. Keeps everyone responsible and accountable for their own belongings around the house.
However, upon further logic-testing, this probably wouldn’t work so well. Think about it, which teenager is going to want to let their entire family know of every item they own? Besides, what about the vacuum cleaner, who owns that?
The solution came in the form of Netflix’s profiles. It was perfect. One account membership, the same system, different profiles, but with the option to passcode-lock your profile.
Upon further self-critique, I realised that I had overlooked a fundamental flaw. In my attempt to keep the backend system as simple as possible, I made sure that the Category, Location, and Lists worked in the exact same way. However, making the lists work this way would do nothing to solve the problem of the user (me), which is that I needed a dynamic way of organising my items into different lists with the same items for different scenarios.
At this point, I realised there was no way around creating a separate function for the lists, and for the better as well!
By creating a separate function, I would be able to assign the list itself to a specific item, more specifically, a bag.
Eg. I would be able to create a list, including a backpack, and assign that backpack to be the “bag” of the list.
As I told more friends about the idea, I realised that many Catholics had never even heard of Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si‘”.
That was when I realised that this could be a lot more than an app. It could potentially be a movement. Something educational.
While the app provided the functionality, it could also act as an entry-point to education. This was when I recalled the Hallow app having similar functions. On the rosary sessions, there would be a link to some resources on the rosary.
I realised that it would be great if I could do the same. Plus, it would give me something to place on the home screen, which I had no idea what to do with yet.
Easy access to important archive groups
The place to search through your inventory
To access and manage your lists
Where all the settings are, donation/recycling stats, item lists
I did have a rough idea of how I wanted the app UI to look. If this was an app made for Catholics in mind, why not model it after the app that most of them are already used to? After all, Hallow’s architecture was similar. Instead of audio sessions, it would be items.
So I got to designing and prototyping.
Due to the nature of the app, I wasn’t able to create a fully functional prototype. Hence, I took the approach of creating a few pre-defined user journeys (as seen in the next step) that would get all the feedback I needed. For now.
While they always say the first prototype shouldn’t have colours, I had to add some colours for the idea to work since the colour-coded categories would be a significant feature.
Since certain things would not make sense without actually having an inventory, I decided that it would be a lot more efficient, to just give my test users a verbal explanation of the context, and allow them to give their feedback based off that. I do wish I had the whole fancy UX lab setup, but I had to settle for spontaneous interview sessions and some rough iPhone notes.
Below are a series of user flows that I took them through, with the help of my prototype and the use of *imaginative visual language*. I focused on the two most important functions, as well as the overall experience to observe their reactions and gather feedback.
While the idea was straightforward enough, the users did bring up some good questions, some of which were just due to the incomplete prototype, and some exposed some minor issues that I never thought about, but were an easy fix.
Q: What’s with all the blank spaces on top?
A: These will display the icon or image selected when you created the category/location/list.
Q: Do I have to fill all these fields up to create an item?
A: No, the minimum requirement to create an item is a name. Once the name is filled out, the create item button will be highlighted/appear.
Q: Okay, so I just need a name to create an item. So what happens if I don’t add anything?
A: A default icon will be added (I made up that answer on the spot)
At least 2 users commented that the search function was too messy and confusing. I guess UI rules of thumb tend to be right, that people don’t like having to look at too many things at once.
The Search function was changed to display only the data according to the tab selected.
This was probably the biggest thing I overlooked.
User: “Okay, I tap on this donate button, what happens now?”
Me: “An icon appears on the thumbnail taunting you to get it donated whenever you scroll through your item list. There will also be a list of these marked items on the Home page and Me page for easy access. And as you can see… there’s even a counter for the stuff you donated or recycled.”
User: “Okay but what happens when I do donate it? How do I know if I’ve donated it or not? Do I have to delete the item manually? And if I do, how is the donation counter going to work?”
Me: *insert swear word*
Long story short, I redid the entire broken concept.
1. Now, when a user presses the “Donate/Recycle” button, it goes into a “Pending” status. In this status, it still appears in the inventory, with an icon to distinguish it. The user now has a list of items that they want to donate. These items do not count towards the donation count.
2. Once the user has officially donated these items, they can shift it over to the “donated” status where it will no longer show up in the inventory, and will count towards the donation counter.
I also had to take into account the other technicalities this introduced, such as how to reset the donation counter, and what would happen if an item was deleted from the donated list, but that’s a story for another day.
When asked about the general look and feel, the one page that got the most criticism was the “Me” page. Comments included:
“overwhelming”, “repetitive”, “ambiguous”, “cheap”
Ouch. That last one hurt.
But it was valid criticism. To get some inspiration for the fix, I went back and took a look at what problems this app was trying to solve in the first place. Upon some reflection, it was clear what needed to be done.
Throughout the app, there wasn’t exactly any explanation for what the “statuses” were for. I was relying too much on the home page article, but let’s be real, most people won’t read it.
It’s amazing how much you can say with just one header label.
Besides, it also provided a space to attach a link to more information.
As always, the greatest challenge was finding colours that were legible in both dark and light mode.
Yes, that is in fact a Franciscan monk designed to resemble the shape of the letter “A”.
Truth be told, this was the very image that popped into my head when I decided on the name “Auster”. Context: Austerity is actually one of the vows the Franciscans take, to live a simple life, without attachment to material things. They’re all about “owning less”.
Hence, I thought a Franciscan monk would be a fitting mascot for the app.
The two main colours used in the app icon (green and brown) serve to help place emphasis the two most important features of the app: Recycle, and Donate.
Hopefully this 30s gif loads well.
Now that I have a pretty solid MVP, I currently have an illustrator working on the icon library, and I also have developers working on the actual app. I expect it to be done by Christmas 2021!
That may seem like a lot for a “portfolio project”, but that’s because it really isn’t. I genuinely NEED this app, and I actually want to use it! If that wasn’t enough reason to bring the project to life, the lifestyle “Auster” advocates is truly one that I believe in and seek to promote. Even if just 100 people download the app and implement the system into their lifestyles, I’d be pretty darn satisfied.
Besides that, it does give me another more UX-focused project to add to my portfolio of course.
Once the fully functioning app is ready, I’ll be able to test a lot more efficiently, and on a wider scale as well, even remotely.
Some things I would like to find out include:
Which statuses are most commonly looked at?
(make them more accessible)
Is there a better way to add new items?
Are there any redundant features?
And so much more.
I look forward to seeing how this project unfolds.