Thesis Proposal

Leveraging competition to assist users in setting effective and achievable goals.

September 2018 - Present
The World
Meredith Thompson
Disclaimer : All content on this page is a work in progress and will be constantly updated until the completion of my thesis in March 2019

If you'd like to skip to my current deliverable, you can check out my updated PDF here! (It's a tad bit long) 

The Brief

How might we leverage competition to assist users in setting effective and
achievable goals?

Thesis is a project that spans the entire 8 months of my final year of school and gives me the freedom to pursue any challenge I'm interested in. With this freedom comes the responsibility of keeping myself on track and reaching out to friends, classmates and strangers on the subway to get feedback on the project.

I plan to use a number of design methods over the course of this project but I will primary focus on integrating IDEO's human centered design principles into an elongated 2 month design sprint. These tools will keep me on track, force me to recognize when it's time to move forward and help prevent me from getting stuck in an endless loop of research and ideation.

Under the guidance of my mentor and professor, Meredith Thompson, I am engaging in two, 7 week, rounds of thesis ideation and prototyping before settling on my final project. This proposal encompasses my first 2 months of research, conceptualization and prototyping and wraps up with me having enough information to pivot and attack the challenge from a different angle in round two.

The Problem

For many people, there is a pinnacle of achievement in their given hobby or profession, be it Mt. Everest, 120 Degrees or The Grand Portage. Everyone has goals of pushing themselves to the limit of what's humanly possible. These achievements are made possible by the lifetime of dedication put in by the professionals that accomplish them.

With the rise of social media, seeing these feats has become extremely easy and encourages thousands of people to give extreme sports a try and push themselves. The dangers arise when people take on challenges they're not prepared for, such as watching Alex Honnold free-solo El Capitan and then thinking they can do it themselves.

Free Solo
Photo Credit - National Geographic
My Story

I began my search for a thesis topic this past summer. I was living in Vancouver and found myself surrounded by a seemingly endless selection of amazing outdoor activities for my friends and I to engage in. I've always loved the outdoors and spent most of my summers growing up at a summer camp in northern Ontario as a camper and eventually a counsellor & guide. These experiences shaped who I am today and being in Vancouver brought that all back to me.

Outdoor recreation isn't for everyone but I was lucky enough to have a group of friends that loved to get outside and we encouraged each-other to push our limits and explore new trails and places we never would have on our own. This competition and comradery was the highlight of my summer and I knew I had to focus my thesis on giving other people the chance to push themselves and accomplish insurmountable goals.

The Users

To help me understand exactly who I was designing this for, I created a series of personas that I felt addressed a diverse user base that would potentially use this product. I used my secondary research to base the personas in the landscape I saw at the time and revisited them over the course of the project to update them with information gained from my primary research. These 3 personas in addition to 1 anti-persona, covered users from all walks of life and addressed 4 primary areas that I wanted to learn more about.

What are their relevant goals?
What motivates them?
Are they open to change?
What are their concerns?

Answering these four questions within my personas helped dramatically in streamlining my research and narrowing in on what a possible solution might look like.


My primary persona is based around a co-worker of mine that loved to push their limits and lives each day like their last. Sophie is eager to get outside and does her best to involve her friends and significant other in her activities, even thought they are not as passionate about the outdoors as she is. She has found competition to be an exceptionally effective motivator in achieving her goals and has been using it to encourage her friends.

To view the personas in full visit this pdf.

Sophie hopes to use this product to set goals for hiking on local trails that can prepare her to tackle the Appalachia trail but that her significant other, who is in worse shape than her, can also handle.


Having only 4 weeks to complete all the research for this phase of the project, I laid out a plan with weekly deadlines and what I hoped to accomplish by the end of each session. Needless to say, I did not come close to staying on track.

Almost all of my initial research was secondary research from scientific journals and research articles that focused on goal setting. This research set the stage for my project, informed the personas and helped me understand that this topic went much further than outdoor recreation. Goal setting is a universal activity and is influential in the majority of decisions we make in our personal and professional lives.

Everyone approaches goal setting in their own unique way.

This realization that i was building a tool for everyone, not a small subset of the outdoor community, caused me to rethink my approach. I broke down all my secondary research and highlighted a series of themes that all the studies shared and could be tied back to my personas.

If you're interested in learning more about the topic, you can check out the research documentation starting on page 25 of my final submission here.


Combining all my secondary research together, I came away with 3 overarching themes that I carried forward into my primary research phase and stakeholder interviews.


I spoke with 6 stakeholders over a period of 4 days. When I set up these interviews I was focusing on outdoor recreation and while I knew I needed to broaden my research, I wasn't going to turn down interviews with potential users. The day before the initial interview I reworked my questions to be more general and shifted them away from outdoor recreation. My key talking points were: 

  • How do you structure and track personal goals?
  • How do you feel when you accomplish a goal you set for yourself?
  • Does competition effect your performance?
  • Do you reward yourself on your successes & do you punish yourself in failure?
  • What do these goals look like in your leisure time compared to business / work?

Out of the 6 stakeholders, 3 of them attended my local climbing gym and I chose them because of their wide range of skill and dedication to climbing, each set and achieved vastly different goals in their "leisure" activities. The other 3 were all students and employees at the Sheridan College gym.

The interviews, for the most part, supported my secondary research. I was excited to see that all of my interviewees set goals, rewarded themselves for completing them, saw no point in unachievable goals and felt they performed at their peak when in competition with someone for the same or a similar goal. One outlier to these theories was Mitch, a climber at the gym who felt that having an unobtainable goal was the reason he woke up every day, to have that final destination off in the distance for him to always work towards and be motivated by.

The surprise to me was that each subject had a different opinion of what a goal actually was. To one person a goal is a concrete objective, cleaning the dishes or making their bed and to another it was a whole slew of goals wrapped together such as, create a routine that helps me have time for my family and personal hobbies.

If you're interested in learning more about the interview in-depth, you can check out the research documentation starting on page 53 of my final submission here.

The most effective way to increase your personal knowledge and skill in any activity is to set achievable and challenging goals in a competitive and supportive environment.

Data Gathering

In addition to interviews, I created a survey and distributed it across a number of internet forums and survey sites where I hoped to gather a wider variety of responses from a much more varied demographic than my interviews. I was blown away to receive over 130 results in just 2 days and it left me with a lot of data to analyze.

The trend that stood out the most in the survey was that people are equally if not more willing to have their goals tracked by a friend or loved one than they are themselves. This trend of group cooperation carried into the questions focusing on competition, with more than 60% of users saying that competition effects them positively, especially in goal setting.

The results of the survey can be found here if you'd like to dig into the data! 


I am currently finalizing the prototyping stage of this project and will be updating this post with new content as I finish and implement my prototyped solutions. ( Stick around, it'll be worth it 😉)

Moving Forwards & Looking Back

This project was my first opportunity to truly work independently on a subject matter of my own choosing while in school. I've enjoyed it tremendously so far and I look forward to continuing it over the next 5 months.

I've learned a number of important lessons working on this project but the most important is how important time management is! Scope creep is a very real thing and on an individual project it is imperative to keep things within the realm of feasible or you're going to be running around like a chicken with its head cut off trying to get everything done.

I would also like to give a special thanks to my mentor, Meredith Thompson, for putting up with my outrageous ideas and helping to stay me on track. I couldn't do it without you!

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