Digital hoarding and minimalism: an exploratory study on personal data management

Every day, people interact with large amounts of digital data: files, photos, texts, apps, and so on. Storage space, whether on hard drives or in the cloud, is cheap. But how do people decide what data to keep or discard over the long term? To find out, I conducted exploratory interviews with 23 participants, asking them about their daily data practices. I identified a spectrum of behaviors with two extremes: hoarding (keeping most data) and minimalism (getting rid of as much data as possible). I then used this result to map a range of ways that technology products can better support individual user needs.

My role as a User Researcher

  • I was the lead researcher on the study: I designed the study plan, choosing the methods for data collection and analysis, I recruited participants, conducted all interviews, and analyzed the data with the help of the team.
  • I was the lead author on the research paper based on the project, that I presented at the CHI 2018 conference, where it received a Best Paper Award.

Team: I worked with Izabelle Janzen, another member of my research lab, and Joanna McGrenere, a senior HCI researcher.

Research questions

When I studied how people prepare for an operating system upgrade, I was surprised to see that many didn’t do a backup beforehand. So I decided to investigate how people take care of their digital “stuff” over time and make sure not to lose it. I wanted to understand whether backups are still a thing in today’s world.

I focused the project on two key broad research questions, to make the investigation open-ended and exploratory:

How do people approach digital data preservation in the cloud age?

How do they decide what data to keep or discard?

Study protocol

I asked participants to bring their devices to the interview sessions and then asked them to show me their data as they talked through their practices.

In the interviews, I asked participants what they consider their data to be, how they managed their digital things, what they consider important, and what they would miss if they lost their devices.

Take a look at the interview script:

I also had a practical exercise where I asked participants to sketch the history of their data over the years, to see what they had kept or discarded as they moved from one device to another.

Handwritten sketches of data histories from participants in the study
I asked participants to sketch the history of their data over the years to see what they had kept or discarded.

While the initial focus of the study was on backups, the interviews were semi-structured, so I was able to follow the lead of participants and uncover unexpected insights about user behaviors.

Identifying hoarding and minimalism

In the middle of the study, my focus shifted from backups to a broader concept. I met a participant with a specific approach in deciding what data to keep or discard. On the participant’s laptop, there was one main folder, called “Life.” No cloud, no smartphone, only one main folder. Everything that mattered was in there, pretty organized in sub-folders. The participant summarised the approach saying:

“It’s very minimal. I try to delete everything that I don’t need as fast as I can.”

Illustration of a computer folder called "Life"
One participant had a minimal approach in deciding what data to keep: a single main folder called “Life” contained everything important.

What struck me was the way this approach differed from what I had seen up until that point. For example, in the interview before, another participant explained the opposite approach:

“I’m a bit of a hoarder. I just keep all the stuff and nothing ever goes away.”

After identifying these examples, I kept interviewing participants, now alert to the idea of hoarding and minimalism. And it started to become more clear that these two labels can represent two extremes. I never mentioned them in my questions. But in the following interviews, more participants used them to describe their behaviors.

Illustration of a visual spectrum with two extremes: hoarding on one side, minimalism on the other side.
In the analysis, I identified a spectrum of behaviors for deciding what data to keep or discard.

Another important insight was the nuanced nature of these behaviors. At first, I thought it was two opposite categories, a binary of sorts. But by iterating on the analysis, I realized it was more complex than that.

Participants had a general approach, but they also discussed interesting exceptions. This made it hard to identify them as either “hoarders” or “minimalists.” For example, one participant who self-described as a strong minimalist showed me a large collection of New Yorker articles. Every new issue of the magazine downloaded, with the best articles saved for the future. This practice seemed to contradict their otherwise minimalist approach.

Examples of New Yorker magazine covers
An exception to an otherwise minimalist approach: a collection of “New Yorker” articles.

Using the study insights to map possible design directions

Based on these insights, we mapped a set of possible design directions that technology products can follow to better accommodate user needs.

A key implication of our results is that data management products should incorporate this spectrum of tendencies in their interfaces. And while this is still not the case, there are existing products that show possible directions to follow.

For example, macOS introduced in 2016 a storage panel to explore unused files: similar interfaces could be expanded and better developed to help users at the two extremes of the spectrum. 

Similarly, at the end of 2017, Google released “Files Go,” an Android application that recommends what data to delete to free up space. A similar approach of using smart recommendations could be developed further so that it tailors suggestions to individual user needs across the spectrum.

Screenshot of macOS detailed storage panel
macOS recently introduced a feature to “reduce clutter” by reviewing large files.

After our analysis was complete, I followed this first exploratory study with a series of additional projects that explored some of the design directions we mapped here. In the additional studies, I was able to use the insights from the interviews to identify additional research questions, inform design, and drive product development.

In the paper we published at CHI 2018, you’ll find more details about the project methodology and the results. You’ll be able to read about the role of these tendencies for identity construction and what past studies in the field have found.