A third ear for students with ADHD

Our teammate Han is often fidgeting with random things during class — stickers, pen caps, doodling. He’s diagnosed with ADHD, which means it’s difficult for him to focus for long periods of time without getting antsy and distracted. As a college student who takes school seriously, his ADHD is a learning barrier. While fidgeting relieves him of some antsiness, he still struggles to avoid small distractions that lead to mind wandering and a sparse notebook. Han’s experience propelled us to uncover the needs of students with ADHD and design a tool to support their learning experience.

We started by researching the problem to better understand our user group’s needs. We interviewed three students with ADHD and learned that they all had difficulty keeping their attention during class and taking thorough notes while simultaneously keeping up with the lecture. Taking notes with pen and paper is desired for students with ADHD, as it can improve their understanding of the material by processing it in writing, and it also improves their focus during class by limiting the distractions from cell phones or laptops. The challenge with pen-and-paper note taking is that it requires the student to switch between taking notes, listening to the lecture, and processing the learning material. Balancing these demanding tasks when prone to distractions in a fast-paced lecture is a big hurdle for students with ADHD.

With these tasks in mind, we designed Fidgetear, a portable cube equipped with fidgeting stimulants and a detachable transcribing microphone. When buttons on the cube are pressed, the cube records and transcribes text and allows the user to bold, highlight, or insert stars into the transcribed text in real-time.This streamlines the note taking process and greatly reduces the mental workload of taking notes. By taking notes this way, we think students with ADHD will be able to focus for longer periods of time, understand material at a deeper level, and leave the classroom with a thorough set of customized digital notes.

Paper Prototype, Testing Process, and Results

Our paper prototype consisted of a real fidget cube that we modified with some paint and paper to illustrate how we wanted our device to look like and the kinds of functions it would have. We made paper prototype screens of the app, showing navigation, organization and editing. We did usability testing with our paper prototype by simulating a lecture. Participants were given the paperprototpe and shown a 10-minute clip of a video of a college lecture. As the participants interacted with the cube’s record, bold, star and camera buttons, we modified the transcript of the lecture to mimic the notetaking aspect of the cube. We gave our participants our fidget cube and explained to them what each of the four buttons did. After the lecture we asked them to review their notes and let us know how accurate they saw the bolding/starring, how easy it is to find important information they would want, and any difficulties they had throughout the experience.

The results of this testing gave us insight on how to improve our design. The first thing we noticed was that our participants were using the fidget aspects of the cube, but were trying hard to silence it. For our revised design, we decided to make all aspects of the cube silent when in use. Secondly, users had trouble remembering which button did what to the notes, leading us to add icons to the buttons. Lastly, the most difficult thing for our participants was knowing when to start and stop bolding, particularly because it’s difficult to know if the next thing you hear will be important. To solve this issue we built in a latency function so the previous five to fifteen seconds of the recording are bolded, and the user can control this by pressing the button one, two or three times. Insight from testing the paper prototype guided our final design as a digital mockup.

Digital Mockup

Our digital mockup is a visual and feature refinement of the paper prototype. Notes are created from the cube or from scratch, and stored on the main screen under “Notes” (Fig. 1). These notes are organized by the user into folders for easy access (Fig. 2). Notes can be opened to view, edit, and share (Fig. 3).

During app design, we had to strongly consider signifiers and affordances, as users make decisions on what to do right from the home screen. For example, our original paper prototype required users to swipe a recording to edit it’s title. Since this feature does not signify the user how to perform the action, how would they figure it out? We moved title editing features inside of the recording, and gave it a signifying “…” button on the top right (Fig. 4). Also, our paper prototype only afforded users to create notes by pressing the cube’s recording button. What if the user would like to create a note from inside the app? We added an affordance for this feature with the of the “+” button to the top right (Fig. 5).

Digitizing our design gave us greater control over its color, size, and space. With tweaking and refinement, a conceptual model emerged from our mockup (Fig. 6–7). Camera and recording icons were added to the app and cube, representing each button’s feature. Color consistencies for bolding, starring, and highlighting helped users to remember these features between the app and cube. Adjusting text font and size allowed us to understand how many features should belong on one screen, and design app accordingly.

This gave another opportunity to rethink the feature set of the Fidgetear. Our main goals were to keep the app orderly and distraction-free, and we combined or grouped similar features to tidy the user interface, such as the title editing and note editing features. Other features were cut to create semantical constraints, such as removing the recording playback buttons from the app’s “recording in progress page” (Fig. 3, Fig. 7). This reduces distractions for the user while they are recording important notes during a lecture.

Our final design changes were to robustify the feature set of the app. We separated uncategorized notes from categorized notes in folders (Fig. 1), and added descriptions for these to introduce new users to the app (Fig. 8). We also implemented a feature for the user to begin cube recording from the app. Lastly, we added a settings page under the hamburger menu, allowing users to customize their cube’s functionality (Fig. 9), and a tutorial in the hamburger menu, outlining the main features of the app (Fig. 10).


Through our user research we identified that there is a significant lack of effective classroom tools to help students with ADHD. There are existing solutions that may assist in taking notes, or help with focus, but none that did both. This is why we came up with Fidgetear, a device that combines the focus enhancement of a fidget cube, and the ability to take better notes through audio recording and transcription. With this solution, we envision that students with ADHD will be on a level playing field in college education. We hope that these students will no longer struggle to learn in the lecture hall environment and instead be able to succeed and increase their understanding of lecture material and performance in classes.

University of Washington Computer Science, Intro to Human Computer Interaction