When we looked at goal-tracking apps we found many options but few original ideas. So we dug into the research on motivation, and conceived something different from anything else out there.

Where We Started

We had long been thinking about a different take on personal development and goal tracking. Turned off by the graphical-analytic driven approach and the hyperactive tone of other apps, we wanted to create a quiet companion that helps people get better at one thing, one step at a time.

What we Did

We created an iOS app that uses a 21 step journeyto help people see their progress as they get better at something. Each time the app is opened, experience is added and can be accompanied by a photo or a short reflection on the experience. With each step as its own thing, we deepen memory and understanding of one’s progress.

Reminders gently surface for those who fall off schedule, careful to not be overly needy or guilt-driven. On a metaphoric mountain, people make their journey toward a goal, and leave a trail that shows evidence of change. Each person takes their own steps, we just record the proof.

After eight months in the App Store with 20,000 downloads, we returned to the app and introduced some major changes driven by our continuing vision and customer feedback. Read about it in the announcement blog post.

The Results

Better Every Time launched on January 1st, 2014 in the iTunes App Store, and within three months over 3,000 people had downloaded and started their own journeys. By the time we started work on version two, we had over 20,000, and a steady 5 star rating in the App Store.

Within this customer base we’ve identified a few characteristics of active users; how they record their experience, where they abandon their goals, and what assistance they might need (and when) to overcome the challenges they face.

Get Better Every Time on the App Store

Some of the App Store reviews have been truly touching:

I adore this product. It’s exactly what it needs to be, and exactly as concept. Because of it I have begun learning something almost everyday.

You guys RULE! — Their beautiful, simple design has helped me literally climb the mountain. In less than 40 days, I have reduced my 3K time by 6 minutes! They make progress a reward and their creation has made my life better.

Thank you to whomever wrote this app. I’ve been struggling and I very much like this app

Application simple et super efficace. C’est même plutôt additif et vous encourage à faire des actions pour un projet dans le temps se vous avez prédéfini. L’interface est léchée… Bravo aux développeurs ! :)

Services Used



Project Snapshots

Why 21?

Everyone asks this, and rightly so. Researcher Shawn Achor’s popular TED talk about personal behaviour change uses a 21-day framework, with that number of steps as the minimum needed to form new habits. Though habits aren’t our focus, we liked the number for being substantial but not impossible, enough to see clear evidence of betterment. That number also let us set some kind of concrete end-point – a way to bite off a chunk of those open-ended pursuits.

Visual Design

Jon’s illustrations drew from our Pacific Northwest home and the Golden Age of Illustration to construct a visual story of ambition, progress, and achievement despite struggle.

The landscapes are sparse, but they add up in actual use. Stark foothills give way to rolling meadows, and later into icy cliffs. You hit the summit, plant your flag, and look back to see how far you’ve come. You can almost touch the sun, and you need to in order to complete your journey.

Following that theme of emptiness, the sparse landscapes allow recall to play a strong role when reviewing progress of a journey in progress, or one you completed a while ago. In the act of recalling specific steps, the landscape becomes a stage for the memory of what you did, and resists taking over as the focus. This idea builds on our interest in storytelling with digital platforms, where in this case we’re trying to let memory and annotation fill in the narrative against a backdrop that is the app.

Interaction Design

Better Every Time’s main interactions are logging and reviewing progress. The mountain metaphor made some choices obvious: progress goes up the mountain, signposts on a path to mark each step, the top of the mountain is a goal reached. It’s part of the power of metaphor in design to have a system of symbols and interactions take shape quickly as a coherent package. Abstracted representations, namely infographic-style visuals, would have involved much more trial and error to arrive at something desirable and evocative.

We considered many nuances to the core interactions: rules to enforce schedule or make things more interesting were defined, discussed, revised, and eventually thrown out. Better Every Time ended up being both quite structured, but also very flexible in the kinds of goals it can support, and the criteria for progress.

Beyond the simple utility, we had some special requirements that came out of our design philosophy and exploratory goals:

Focus on Accomplishment

Only track one goal at a time. We noticed that most apps encourage entry of a whole bunch of goals, especially at the start. Sometimes it’s a background business model directing that, but more often it’s the assumption that software should always encourage doing ‘the most’.

But think about it: the more goals you set up, the less you actually get to. And every time you open an app with many goals, you’re going to look a little further behind. We wanted to see if scarcity made each goal more important, more valuable. Once a journey is started, it can be aborted but not resumed.

Update in version 2 We relented on the idea of only one journey after a lot of customer feedback, and ended up redesigning the app to support up to three journeys at one time. We still believe in limits, but sometimes you have to give a little.

Better's new journey home screen and a taste of the new Robot Factory theme.

Version 2 saw a brand new multi-journey homescreen, and a new theme called Robot Factory Boogaloo.

In the robot factory theme, we added small touches of animation, like floating signposts (which are hovering screens here), an easter egg, and animated transitions. These take us a step towards what we would really like to see in Better’s unique visualizations, and these touches have been well-received.

Assume Progress

Usually when you open an app, it waits for you to tell it something, to give it a command. Better Every Time assumes that if you’re opening the app it’s because you made some progress.

A short timer gives you a chance to cancel the automatic logging, otherwise you move another step. This isn’t just optimisim for hikers on Better Mtn, it’s a quest for an absurdly lean interaction: zero-taps as soon as the app opens.

Update in version 2 In making the change to multiple journeys, we abandoned the automatic check-in. What felt like a loss ended up being a gain, as customers reported not feeling anxious about opening the app unless they had progress. That change boosted Better’s value as a journal of reflection and change, as well as a simple progress tracker.

Not Here

Better Every Time doesn’t have many features. In fact, it encourages you to spend very little time in the app. There are no stats, no graphs. No social media integration. If you’re not adding progress or looking back at how far you’ve come, all that’s left is to do something else, hopefully taking that next step to your goal by doing it in the real world.

Quiet Space

One of the scary things about releasing this app is that it doesn’t really do much for you until you actually use it with purpose. Just tapping around won’t give you a lot, and looking at progress you didn’t earn is cute, but unrewarding. Outside of actual use, it’s easy to look, shrug, and forget it. In use, it becomes essential and highly rewarding.

A lot of the philosophy of this app comes from the idea that a structured emptiness is the real value of something. Think of a cup, and how the empty space inside is what makes it useful. Or a donut, and how the empty space in the middle makes it distinct.

We’ll be watching closely to learn how to communicate the potential as the value, rather than an app that ‘does a lot’.

Get Better Every Time on the App Store

We can do this for you

Maybe this sparks some ideas of your own. Learning about your options and next best steps is as easy as dropping us a line:

Say hello@denimandsteel.com