The Oasis Dimmers and the Timekeeper Case: An ADHD Design Story

Joel Olympio
23 min readMay 24, 2023
The Oasis Dimmers and the Timekeeper Case

A story of how I designed a product to help people to focus in busy environments and how I learned more about myself along the way.

Many of them kept telling the same story; of how they would find little corners to work in, walled off spaces, to reduce visual noise. And these weren’t just in what would typically be considered busy environments. These were also quiet library spaces, college classrooms and even their own bedrooms.

Chapter 1: “It’s you, hi, you’re the problem it’s you”

My goal with the project wasn’t to solve ADHD. It would have been the wrong mind-set going into it. Much of my research alluded to many ADHD impairments being extrinsically caused by environments rather than intrinsically caused by inherent neurology. There is a mismatch, an incongruity, between the ADHD brain and the environments it finds itself in. And really, the best way to go about helping people with ADHD, is to allow for it. But unfortunately this is unrealistic for many people with ADHD due to its societal misunderstanding, non-conformity and resulting stigma. So oftentimes you must meet them halfway and people with ADHD feel that way too. You can only change environments so much and people with ADHD can only adapt to an environment by so much. Hence, it is often necessary that both the environment adapts to them, and they adapt to it, meeting in the middle. Sounds good right? Well, many of these environments are slow or reluctant to change because “this is how it’s done, how it’s always been done, everyone else is fine and you are only one person”. This idea is both internalised by people with ADHD and accepted by some environments around them. So, when there is a problem, the person with ADHD is asked to change. With my project I wanted to adapt the environment without asking the person with ADHD to change so much. I wanted to design a tool and not a disability aid. And I didn’t want to tell people with ADHD how to live or work but rather offer them something they can use to adapt environments to them and use how they see fit. Here is a tool, figure it out, which is something people with ADHD tend to like doing. People with ADHD can be told their whole lives how they should and shouldn’t do things, without an understanding of the ADHD brain, to the point where they may no longer even like to be helped, as one user I interviewed said, “they don’t know me so why should they solve issues for me”. For my research, I wanted to make sure I fully understood ADHD, every little detail of it, from the neurobiology to the lived experience. And I wanted to explore where people with ADHD succeed not just where they have problems.

We should see where people with ADHD succeed. Page 14–15, Research Phase 1, Final Design Project Process Book.

However, I couldn’t design something in dreamland. I had to be aware of the perceptions of ADHD, the stigma, the internalised conditioning, the social expectations. In a way I had to design in the reality of the secondary and tertiary stakeholders rather than completely in the reality of the user. Oftentimes, solutions that could help people with ADHD are perceived negatively by the neurotypical environments around them. This was considered with my ideation concepts both in functionality and form. As well as this, the user could not be a fixed generalisation. ADHD can differ from person to personality. So when I would make user personas for concepts, they were more so stories potential users could relate to rather than a specific user I had in mind.

Adult ADHD Stakeholders. Page 32–33, Research Phase 2, FDP Process Book

There was also another stakeholder. The course. During my time in design school, I always found this conflict of what might make a good product and what might get me a good grade, what would look good in the process book, what would add a couple more pages to it? How could I record this process in a trivial way, so I get the marks? I understood it, grading must be objective and is process-focused, but I didn’t like it. I felt process books didn’t reflect my actual process. Something one person said when I interviewed them was “to look beyond the project” which I found very inspiring. Should I do all this for a grade or should I do all this because I care? Should I check boxes or try to think outside of them? This led to a riskier but more genuine process. Approaching the project like this made it more enjoyable because there was a clear and encouraging purpose. And the project had to be enjoyable because, you know, I have this thing that makes it harder to do things I don’t enjoy, or do anything at all.

100 participants were surveyed, here are some of the results. Page 36–37, FDP Process Book.

ADHD and Novelty Seeking

Imagine your brain constantly firing novelty particles at everything it sees hoping that something will absorb them and glow with interest. Everything can become a distraction because you’re not being distracted necessarily, you’re looking for distraction, for stimulus, novelty, dopamine. The source of distraction can be external from the environment or internal from thoughts. There are various presentations of ADHD. These were once described as three subtypes but this has since been revised as the presentations can change over the course of one’s life. People with the ADHD Predominantly Impulsive-Hyperactive presentation tend to be more externally distracted while those with the ADHD Predominantly Inattentive presentation tend to be more internally distracted. When the ADHD brain, which is naturally low in dopamine (and norepinephrine) due to higher concentration of dopamine transporters, finds a source of dopamine, it can be like “Holy cow, finally a source of dopamine, let me hyper-fixate on it so I don’t lose it”. ADHD medication supplements this naturally low dopamine deficiency helping the brain to regulate dopamine levels and since the dopamine is now regulated, the brain no longer needs to look for it as much and can maintain a stable level of attention. Hyperfocusing, a common ADHD behaviour which can’t really be controlled, can be described as when the ADHD brain ignores some sensory inputs so that the majority of your attention is on whatever your hyperfocusing on. This can mean losing track of time, thirst, hunger and more. The ADHD brain is often in a state of complete dispersed attention or complete full attention, rather than somewhere in-between where most people are when being productive. So really ADHD isn’t an attention-deficit, it’s an attention-regulation-deficit. People with ADHD can focus, and focus really well, but controlling how and when is the issue. And when people around you are not wired in this way, you can feel very different, lazy, stupid and unmotivated.

So relatedness is a powerful thing. I couldn’t help but smile as people told me their stories. “Sometimes I’m paralysed by a task I need to get done” “Me too! I mean…oh yeah, that sucks.” I had to stop myself from impulsively relating to everything they were saying so I could hear their story, not mine.

10 users around the world were interviewed. Meet Ann. “People shouldn’t go out of their way to fix my problem”. A user interview (Name changed for anonymity). Page 40–41, FDP Process Book
Meet Kay. “I still have bad brain days even with treatment”. A user interview (Name changed for anonymity). Page 44–45, FDP Process Book.

Chapter 2: “My brain adjusts to the context it’s in”

I found from my research that people with ADHD need different spaces for various kinds of work. For example, if they’re working in an open office environment which is collaborative then collaborative style of work will suit this environment, but when they need to do more focused work they need an environment that reflects that (“My brain adjusts to the context it’s in”, one user said), and often they wouldn’t have that option to change their environment so how can I create the sense of a closed, focused, space within an open and collaborative environment.

Responses from survey. “It’s easy to get distracted but I like being around people”. Page 60–61, FDP Process Book.

When I first started showing people Concept Focus, a glasses-like device that dims peripheral vision using electrochromic film, to create the sense of a closed space in open environments, I observed how some people’s minds immediately related it to…horse blinkers. They would say it with a slight smirk, and I would smile back reluctantly, scratch my head, “yeah, like…horse blinkers”. First of all, never heard of them. Secondly, I did not like the product association. Thirdly, it is fascinating how we find ways to make the unfamiliar, familiar. I realised then that this could be another example of an ADHD solution being perceived negatively or stigmatised by people. I didn’t know if there would be much I could do to reduce that product association but after much iteration of form, I think I was able to deviate from a horse-blinker-reminding form: “It’s like a superhero mask, like the ones in The Incredibles movie!”, “Yes Luisa, yes it is and I’m very glad you thought of that rather than a product that encourages horses to stay on track…”. And you know there was something interesting about the superhero mask association. There is this idea that people propose ADHD is some sort of superpower. I’m not sold on it, completely. Yeah, sure me doing everything last minute, forgetting things or drifting in thought mid-conversation is a superpower. But I get what they mean. To someone without ADHD, the tendency to hyperfocus can be seen as somewhat supernatural. But to me, I find it’s often more of a response mechanism that just about gets me through tasks rather than a magic ring that can conjure up insane levels of productivity. ADHD can have its merits and presenting it as some hyper-ability or hypotheses that point to it being an evolutionary adaptive set of traits can help with self-esteem, something people with ADHD can struggle with after years of being told or feeling that they’ll never be good enough and are disordered but it’s important to recognise it’s definitely not all sunshine and rainbows, for some it rarely is, so more positive outlooks can also be damaging as well as encouraging. But with the hero mask form I thought I could at least present the device like a superpower, something magical since electrochromic film has that effect.

Concept F0-C5 (Focus) Direction 1
Concept F0-C5 (Focus) Direction 3

With Great Accountability Comes Great Focus

A fascinating thing happens when you put them on. At first you might be like “what the heck?”. But after a few moments your eyes adjust to the Vignette Effect™️ and the “what the heck?” doesn’t immediately go away because you see it’s important. It’s a reminder that you’re supposed to be doing something, “Why is my peripheral vision dimmed? Oh right, focus”. The concept had an unintended accountability effect, it does more than just reduce visual distractions, it reminds you of why they’re reduced in the first place. People with ADHD can struggle with creating an internal sense of accountability due to executive differences in the brain which often results in a feeling of “I need to do this, but I mentally can’t bring myself to” and hence only starting a task when the consequences are near… and dear. So, for ADHD, it is often more effective to create an artificial external sense of accountability. This is why things like timers, gamification of tasks, body-doubling and reward systems work. The concept’s dimming feature is an external reminder that can keep you focused on a task. This boosted the concept’s VANTE criteria which is a rating system that I came up with during the ideation phase of the project based on ADHD cognitive behavioural therapy and Dr. Russell Barkley’s research. Visual; Accountable; Novel; Timekeeping and Environmental. Each concept was given a rating for each criteria. If it was weak in one criteria, I tried to strengthen it by combining it with another concept. To visually represent this and make it fun for myself, I designed the “What If? Card Game”. My concepts were placed on individual Pokémon-like cards where I could compare them and combine them. I came up with some game rules on how each card could be used and from there the game could be played. The top concepts were then placed on a leaderboard and from there, with stakeholder feedback, I selected which ones I would further develop. Concept Focus was one of three I further developed along with a digital note taker to assist with working memory and a product system to encourage body-doubling.

What If? Card Game
What If? Card Game x2 Combos
What If? Card Game x3 Combos and Leaderboard

VANTE Criteria

Visual: Out of sight, out of mind. The ADHD brain often does not remember information, things and even people that are out of sight. This can cause forgetfulness.

Accountable: The ADHD brain often needs an external (and preferably visual) sense of accountability to create motivation to do things.

Novel: The ADHD brain can lose interest in things very quickly and move from one thing to the next.

Timekeeping: ADHD brains deal with things near in time (time near-sightedness) and tend to have a warped sense of time-passing and task time estimation (time blindness).

Environmental: ADHD is environmentally contextual. To assist with impairments, solutions should target the point of performance meaning they should treat the impairment where it occurs.

Chapter 3: “I got it as a free sample”

Iterative prototyping was a central part of my process. Inspired by my reading of both of James Dyson’s biographies, I wanted to prototype a lot and prototype quick, successively, and purposefully. I found 3D printing to be the best way to do this after first making quick mockups with cardboard, tape, a black marker, and some pairs of my old glasses. Later on in the prototyping stage, I found myself needing materials or technology that I couldn’t get in my local B&Q. When I tell you that I’ve never been happier to be a student at this point, I mean it:

“Hi, I’m a student at the University of Limerick researching blah blah blah, give free sample.

Kind regards,


And just like that I got free samples of tinted films locally and electrochromic film from China. The manufacturing industry seems to be very supportive of student projects which is cool.

My prototypes were all analogue versions of the proposed concept, that is, you couldn’t turn off or adjust the dimming. But I could test and iterate the effectiveness and positioning of the dimming. Initially I thought all I would need to do is dim the side peripheral vision but as I put on the very first prototype which was two bits of cardboard attached to the sides of an old pair of glasses, I was like “this doesn’t really do anything”. So I added more cardboard at the top of the frames, then the bottom but still wasn’t quite the effect I was hoping for. Then I added bits at the front and suddenly I felt like I could work all day in the fluorescent yellow and visually speckled design studio.

Early Prototypes. M1-M4
Later Prototypes. M8-M10

Chapter 4: “I would use those and I don’t have ADHD”

There were a couple reasons why I decided to take a universal design approach with the concept. One, ADHD isn’t recognised in all cultures. In some cultures it’s misunderstood and stigmatised like it was and still kind of is in France. In more tribal or spiritual cultures, like in parts of India and some African countries, it’s not seen as a disorder at all but rather a unique set of adaptive traits that makes bearers suitable for certain ways of life. This is interesting because one form of ADHD treatment in more western culture is finding jobs that suit ADHD behaviour such as entrepreneurship, highly stimulating careers or jobs that the person has intrinsic interest in. While I don’t imagine a hunter in an African tribe or a shaman in India using the concept, the point is someone might have ADHD or rather what some cultures refer to as ADHD and not realise it or have it diagnosed (which is very common). If the product was so associated with ADHD then people who don’t have it or don’t know they have it and people in countries that don’t recognise it, might not want to use them despite potential usefulness. I also found from user feedback that people without ADHD would find them useful since everyone experiences distractibility just not as severely as those with ADHD. Secondly, by designing the device for anyone who may find them useful, it makes it more of a focusing tool which can reduce the potential of the device being stigmatised or even involuntarily informing the environment that the user might have ADHD, something some people don’t like to disclose due to misunderstanding and stereotypes. I personally used to only tell people who I spent a lot of time with that I had ADHD so they’ll know why I might randomly zone out, talk about something random, forget things, be late, stare out windows, over share, not talk at all or find and obsess over a random new interest. But now, after researching it which reduced my own internalised stigma, I don’t really mind who knows. I don’t make it part of my identity but for better or worse it is part of my personality. Something one of my interviewees told me was my project should also aim to educate people about ADHD which is one reason I decided to write this.

A Ramp into the Environment

When you design something for an extreme of the population you sometimes end up helping everyone. When you put a ramp into the building for wheelchair users, everyone can now still get into the building, even buggy users. When you make something easier to read for Dyslexia, everyone can read it. When you make it easier to focus in busy environments, can everyone benefit from it? As I mentioned, from non-ADHD user feedback, yes, it seems so. But I recognised that some people might find the completely dimmed Vignette Effect a bit extreme so I added a dimmer wheel that allows you to adjust the opacity by varying the voltage applied to the electrochromic film. Do I expect everyone to use them? Of course not, the important thing is the option is there and made for everyone whether you have ADHD or not. It’s universal design.

Chapter 5: “Just Bing it”

When it came to designing the internal architecture of the product, I had some help from my friend Bing AI. I wanted to show to the best of my abilities how the product would technically work. I considered the main components and made sure they could fit in the space I had designated for them. This is where Bing AI came in. I would ask it the technicalities of a component and how it could all connect and what restrictions they had in terms of space, positioning and power. I soon realised how difficult it is to design small wearables. As Bing said, “every millimetre counts” and was it right. When I tried to fit an open-ear audio driver and haptic feedback engine in the design, I realised it couldn’t happen without changing the form and I was precious about the form plus I was on the fence about including audio functionality anyways. The two features had to battle it out in another game I made called “Feature Fighter” which was like “Street Fighter” (I tend to gamify things to make them interesting). I weighed the benefits of both and asked Bing for its input too. Ultimately, haptic feedback was the lighter, cheaper and less battery consumptive option.

The haptics provide a sensory interface for different functions and signifiers on the device.

From the internal architecture discussion with Bing, I really saw the potential of AI as a co-designer or co-pilot as Microsoft puts it. The prefix, “co”, is important here. Bing wasn’t some design god that had a final say in the product but a repository of valuable information to bounce ideas off.

Use With Intent

Apart from all the internal components and the latest advancements in electrochromic film, the device requires a little bit of user magic. This comes in the form of task intent. While there’s no specified way to use them, I find they work best for me when I align using them with the completion of a specific task or tasks. The device creates the ideal space for you to get a focused task done in a busy environment and associating them with productivity can help you enter the mindset for completing a task just like how associating a physical space with a certain task can motivate you to do it.

Chapter 6: “Almost Invisible”

Rimless Lenses — One Style Fits All?

This was tricky one. Initial concept designs of Concept Focus were very much in a glasses form factor. The idea was that they would look like normal glasses until you turned on the dimming. The concept revolved around a discrete and fashionable design language so the user would feel comfortable using them anywhere. My design mentor then encouraged me to look beyond the typical glasses form factor which I was initially quite hesitant to do. We had these arguments over something discrete and familiar versus something distinct and unique. The question arose, “What did I want to communicate to the environment? “I’m trying to focus please don’t disturb” (distinct) or “I’m trying to focus but you can still chat with me” (discrete). From my research, I didn’t want the user to feel secluded from the environment or bring too much attention to them. I wanted something people would like to wear and wasn’t overly customisable. Finally, I wanted something that was of course manufacturable which was really considered from the beginning. I didn’t want to go too far in either direction of discretion or distinction so with some form exploration and continuous prototyping I settled on something that resembled the hero mask design but you could attach different styled frames magnetically for prescription lenses and feature lenses (blue light, dyslexia tint). The idea was to give the user the option of discrete versus distinct. However, users saw the device as something for utility rather than a fashionable item. They didn’t need something very styled, they just didn’t want to “look silly”. So as I started to refine the design with the hero mask form, I started liking it more and more to the point where I wanted to highlight it not hide it. I felt glasses wearers, including myself, who would need to modify the design with a prescription could now lose out on the hero mask form. How could I highlight the organic Vignette piece while also having prescription lens modification? I couldn’t put lenses behind the Vignette due to the standard curvatures I used to conform to the user’s face. Hence, they had to go in front to support all prescriptions. They also couldn’t be part of the vignette piece due to curvature and refractivity requirements for prescription lenses. I was first thinking I could maybe use the see-through plastic frames which have become trendy recently but I felt they were too stylised, I wanted something more minimal. I then thought of wireframe glasses which would compliment the overall design as it had metallic detailing. But one day I was watching a video from Thom Hartmann, an entrepreneur with ADHD and former psychotherapist, about his Hunter/Farmer hypothesis regarding the etiology of ADHD. He was wearing rimless glasses and they appeared almost invisible on his face. Almost invisible I wondered. That’s it, that’s the design, rimless. I soon thought of Steve Jobs and his iconic glasses.

The rimless design worked well. Not only did they allow the Vignette to be highlighted but they further added to the almost invisible aesthetic and an added benefit was that they would be lightweight. I was going to offer different shaped lenses for customisability but I found for the almost invisible effect, for it to work best, the lenses need to conform to the silhouette curvature of the Vignette. The shape ended up being a sort of rounder wayfarer lens.

An Interlude: Milan Detour

Around four weeks before the project deadline I started to feel burned out. Which was annoying since this would be when I would start putting together the story of the concept which is probably my favourite part of the process. My bed started to feel more comfy in the mornings, my night work escapades fell short at 11pm rather than 2am. I started to worry that I wouldn’t finish this project how I wanted to. Will this be another classic ADHD tale of feeling irrationally underachieved. I would fall asleep thinking about my FYP, dream about my FYP and wake up thinking about my FYP. There was no stop, no break, no rest as I’m not “good” at stopping, breaking or resting. I needed to get away from it all and while it wasn’t planned as a break, Milan Design Week provided the perfect distraction. I was still engrossed in design but at least it wasn’t my own. There was so much to see that I could finally stop thinking about my FYP even just for a little while. And so espressoed up and curious, my friend and I walked the streets of Milan and the Salone observing world class design and talent. I think it gave us time to reflect on and appreciate design but most importantly it gave us time to rest.

Chapter 7: “Almost Impossible”

One Size Fits All?

Definitely not. This was perhaps the most difficult aspect of the design. When I needed a design that conformed well to the face for the vignette effect to work without too much light bleed along the edges, it was very hard to make something that fitted everyone’s head. I availed of standard glasses curvatures as I mentioned which helped but these standards weren’t really designing for this kind of form (they were designed for sunglasses) so there was still some issues. The brow was particularly troublesome and I couldn’t think of a way to address it without different curvature options when purchasing the device. But I recalled the Surface Adaptability Kit which has different attachments to make Surface devices, which I love, more adaptable to different users. Attachments, I wondered. That’s it, that’s how I’ll make it adaptable. And I thought of earbuds and how people have different inner ear shapes so we have those silicon buds when you get a pair of earphones. There was one thing I couldn’t solve with an attachment and that was the overall size so there’s two sizes, medium-large and small which is pretty standard for glasses and wearables.

Chapter 8: “I want it to feel like you’re walking into a comfortable room.”

How could I translate that feeling into the CMF of the product? One of my lecturers said to look at what it is that makes a room comfortable or even furniture. What I observed was interesting from a design point of view. I think for something to be comfortable it needs to first be perceived as comfortable which can mean soft, ergonomic, gentle on the eye but also at the same time perceived as secure which can mean hard, angular and stable. So I wanted to use a mix materials that could convey both, colours that were gentle and welcoming and finishes that wrapped it all together. I wasn’t just designing a product, I was designing a space or a feeling. The device was designed to be soft to see, secure to touch and comfortable to wear. Lightweight and structural materials were selected such as aluminium. Edges were filleted and the Vignette which I imagined like solid, flowing water was open and organic. It was also absolute hell to make in SolidWorks and every time I open SolidWorks I now get traumatic flashbacks to yellow and red warnings. But alas, I endured. The Vignette was left open to encourage approachability and again to make the user feel less secluded. If, however, the user does not want anyone distracting them, there is a Do Not Disturb light which uses a mute icon to signal that the user is occupied. For the colours, I studied current consumer technology trends. I chose Shadow Black, Cloud White and Pebble Grey. A soft, Alcantara finish was added to the cover which gives access to the internals. It all assembled together to make a design that’s inspired but original and an experience that’s premium and inviting. A form that informs function.

Chapter 9: “And the Timekeeper Case”

The Timekeeper Case augments the product experience. I spent much of my time refining what I’ve called the Oasis Dimmers that the case went on the back burner for a while even though it’s an important complimentary device. I knew what it had to do and how it would do it so I felt comfortable prioritising the dimmers and coming back to it when I had a final form for Oasis which I could compliment with the case. But I did end up struggling with the case form for a while. I essentially wanted a case that could turn into a desk clock. The obvious form would be a box but it just wasn’t resonating with me. Then, my mom bought a Chromecast to turn our old T.V into a smart T.V and it came with this little remote and I thought, “that’s it”, that’s the form. It was another “aha! That’s it!” moment which seemed to happen a couple times throughout the project particularly when I found inspiration from around me. I think when you have a project on your mind certain things start to stand out and glow with little nodes waiting to be connected.

The Timekeeper Case wirelessly charges and stores Oasis and has a small AMOLED display for various timekeeping functions. I originally wanted it to be e-ink but after talking to a friend who became an e-ink expert during his FYP, it would have been an inefficient use of the technology. I thought about adding a kickstand so it can be inclined towards the user when in desk clock position but I actually found the form naturally inclined when it was on its side anyways.

Chapter 10: The Attention Desert

The Oasis name reflects finding a peaceful space amidst a challenging environment but it also in a way symbolises what it’s like to live with ADHD; a desert of disinterest you have to trudge through so you find ways to create mirages that stimulate you, challenges that keep you moving, escapes that keep you you. But sometimes you just want to sink in the sands, hide in the dunes and move with the winds. You can only see so far in the vastness of sand sodden scapes. But every once in a while you find an oasis. Refreshing flowing novelty so layered with interest that time stops. The pressure no longer feels so hot. The oscillating waves of thought become gentle. And for a moment you are present, you are now, you are you. You have found your space, your oasis.

An Epilogue

I had no intention of writing this. It really just kind of happened. I wrote most of it on my phone between sets at the gym when I forgot what I was doing. When I eventually put it into Word and realised how long it was, I was like “Oh this is not my typical article and no one is going to read this”. So if you’re here, thank you, really. I hope you learned a little about my process but more importantly I hope you learned about ADHD. I actually finished most of this story before the actual story was finished, as in I hadn’t finished my project by the time I finished writing this. So it was essentially how I wanted the story to end, something I could work towards and that’s what I did to the best of my abilities. There’s always more I could have done, things I would have done and stuff I should have done but I’m happy with what I have done, with the story I could tell, the story of the Oasis Dimmers and The Timekeeper Case.

A special thank you to my interviewees who really inspired me. Thank you also to r/IndustrialDesign, Claire Twomey of @internalconnections and the ADHD Dopamine Discord server for sharing my survey.

The end…for now.