Understanding when and how people declutter their digital possessions

How do people declutter their possessions, both physical and digital? In this mixed-methods study, we used contextual interviews with 7 participants and an online survey (with 349 respondents) to understand people’s decluttering strategies and habits. Our goal was to capture key differences between physical and digital possessions and then use these insights to generate design ideas for technology products. Think Marie Kondo, but for your digital life instead.

My role as a User Researcher

  • I planned and led the study: I chose methods, recruited participants, wrote the script and survey, collected and analyzed data.
  • I wrote a report based on the results of the study, that we used to inform future projects.

Team: I worked on the project with William Odom and Joanna McGrenere, two senior researchers in HCI.


Research goals and questions

Most people have many possessions, whether digital or physical, that they do not want to keep. But how they do go about decluttering and getting rid of stuff? What differences are there between decluttering physical vs. digital possessions? And how might we better support digital decluttering?

To answer these questions and identify key design opportunities for digital decluttering, we decided to take a look at user practices for both physical and digital possessions, and then compare the two domains.

A scene from NBC's The Good Place, in which Eleanor declutter and cleans up her bedroom
In the study, we wanted to know when and how people declutter their possessions. (GIF from NBC’s The Good Place.)

Our study research questions focused on specific strategies and habits for decluttering:

  • When and how do people declutter their possessions?
  • What are their strategies and habits?
  • What are the key differences between physical and digital possessions?
  • For digital possessions, what different types of data do people consider and how do they approach different types?

A mixed-methods approach

We used contextual home interviews and an online survey to understand how people declutter their possessions

To answer the study research questions, we decided to take a mixed-methods approach and use both contextual interviews (with 7 participants) and an online survey (349 participants in total).

The goal of the interviews was to capture user behaviors in context, understanding specific decluttering practices and strategies. The survey, instead, was useful to quantify some of the behaviors from the interviews and also gather a wider range of decluttering examples from users so that we could map and prioritize different needs.

I conducted contextual interviews in the homes of participants to understand when and how they decluttered their possessions, both physical and digital.

Interview protocol

With these different goals in mind, I decided to loosely structure the interview sessions in three parts:

  1. A home tour: here I asked participants to show me how they managed and decluttered physical possessions in their homes, going from room to room and focusing on specific objects or areas. This was useful to capture specific behaviors.
  2. A digital device tour: here I asked participants to do a similar tour, but this time focusing on digital possessions. Again, this section was key to capture specific episodes and strategies, and also probe on differences between digital and physical possessions.
  3. A set of broader contextualizing questions: here I asked participants clarifications about their behaviors, how they dealt with clutter, and how they used external tools or help for decluttering. This last section was useful to get a sense of user habits and more general attitudes.
Take a look at the interview script:

Online survey questions

In the survey, instead, I asked participants several questions about their decluttering habits, using a mix of closed and open-ended responses:

  • How often they decluttered both physical and digital possessions (closed-ended).
  • When was the last time they decluttered some of their possessions, both physical and digital (closed-ended).
  • A description of what they did the last time they decluttered their possessions, both physical and digital (short, open-ended).

I built the survey using Qualtrics and then recruited participants online.

Key insights and results

Participants decluttered physical possessions more often than digital possessions

Using data from the survey, we found that participants decluttered physical possessions more often than digital possessions.

Most participants said they last decluttered physical possessions within the previous week (33%) and digital possessions within the previous month (30%). In terms of frequency, most reported decluttering multiple times a year both physical (37%) and digital items (33%). But a relatively high percentage of respondents reported rarely decluttering digital items (21%).

Decluttering digital possessions felt more difficult because of poor support in technology products

Data from the interviews helped us contextualize the results from the survey: participants often said that they found decluttering physical possessions easier than decluttering digital possessions. They felt this way for several reasons. For example, some participants said that digital decluttering felt less urgent and never-ending. Others complained about the poor support in technology products for easily finding items to declutter. Whereas with physical items they could easily assess how old an item was or how often they used it, the same was more difficult to do with digital possessions.

“To be honest, I don’t think I’m quite as good with digital things […] I find the digital stuff more taxing than the physical.”

P7

Strategies for decluttering varied based on urgency and items considered

No matter the degree of difficulty, participants still tried to declutter their possessions. To do that, they used different strategies that varied based on their urgency and the number of items considered. In our analysis, we identified three key strategies for decluttering:

📅

Routine decluttering

Regular habit to mark the passage of time. Frequent but not urgent.

Triggered decluttering

Infrequent event caused by an urgent need to free up space.

💡

Serendipitous decluttering

Unexpected event occurring in the context of another activity.

Participants also reported decluttering items inspecting them one by one or as part of large categories and groups. The support of different digital tools for different strategies was not always optimal. For example, participants reported often struggling when they needed to quickly identify digital items to declutter under pressure.

Participants decluttered a wide range of digital possessions

When it came to digital possessions, participants reported decluttering a wide range of items, spanning from documents to mobile applications and system data like cache or logs. We used the open-ended responses from the survey to create a taxonomy of data types that participants decluttered, grouped into 6 macro-categories. Then, we mapped different decluttering criteria to different categories.

A visual map for a data taxonomy we build using the survey responses: we grouped data info four macro categories (documents, organization, media, communication, system data, logging data)
We built a taxonomy of data types and related decluttering criteria using the survey responses.

In the studies that came after this project, this taxonomy of data types helped us prioritize what solutions to design and what data types to focus on.

Design opportunities for new products and solutions

Based on the results of the study, we identified several key design opportunities for new products or solutions, that we used to generate and brainstorm ideas:

How might we… visualize decluttering criteria for digital possessions?

⌛️

For example, by showing how old a file is or how frequently it is used. Participants used similar criteria to decide what digital possessions to declutter but they reported that it was hard to easily get a sense of them in digital items compared to physical possessions.

How might we… proactively find items to declutter?

🔍

Participants wanted more concrete and proactive help from digital tools: systems that automatically suggest what data to declutter might help users.

How might we… prevent unwanted accumulation of digital data?

🛑

Participants often reacted to data coming their way, citing, for example, photos shared by others. Can we imagine ways of preventing unwanted data from clogging their devices in the first place?

How might we… make decluttering more fun and engaging?

🙌

Participants complained that decluttering often feels boring or tedious. Can we make it more fun? This will help users enjoying the process more and feel more connected to their tools and platforms.


After the project was over, we used the insights on user behaviors and the design directions generated from the study to explore possible concepts and develop a prototype system that we tested with more users.

In retrospect, using a mixed-methods approach was essential for gaining both depth and breadth, helping us ground possible design solutions into key user behaviors and common habits.