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Time Perception in UX Design

- Sunday, November 27, 2011 |

You are close to finishing up your project; your workflow has improved significantly since you started using that project management tool for developers: time is flying. Later that day your flight is delayed and you start reading the news and switch to playing a game: time goes slow; distraction keeps your eyes off the clock until departure.

Time perception is an interesting dimension of user experience that designers need to understand to improve the UI. When users engage with the interface, a slight change in their perception of time can affect their entire experience. In this article we discuss different types of time perception, user scenarios and optimization techniques recommended in each case.

The Persistence of Memory 1931 Salvador Dali
The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

Wait Time: A Placeholder for Undefined Activities

When users are waiting or taking a break, time can be perceived as a placeholder for a variety of experiences. Users will try to fill this time with something entertaining. Users can decide to play a game, read news or books, check social updates or search/discover new things.

There are two basic design requirements for entertaining apps meant to fill that wait time: user input should be minimum and the experience should feel rewarding. Interface designers need to minimize the number of interactions users have to perform to reach their goal: this apparent simplicity makes it easier for users to navigate smoothly, remember the experience and repeatedly use that app in similar situations.

Too many people waiting for a bus
Photo by: Oran Viriyincy on Flickr.

Sensitive Time: A Limited Resource to Achieve Goals

When in a hurry, users tend to perceive time as a pressing factor and limited resource for getting things done. The emotional charge involved will transfer to their experience of apps used at that time. In order to avoid frustration and prevent bad user experience, designers will have to determine what is the best design solution to fit important information, both on the mobile and desktop version of the product. High traffic content should be placed in highly accessible areas, and all actions required from users to complete goal relevant tasks should be accessible and clear.

Photo by: Tomas Gianelli on Flickr.

One sure way to optimize interfaces for time sensitive users (in a hurry, on the move) or time sensitive user needs (booking a last minute flight or ticket, fast online purchases) is to identify all possible user paths necessary to complete the task successfully and guide users towards the most efficient one:

  • Optimize forms necessary to complete a required task - more specific tips can be found in this recent article
  • Use CSS3 to style your form, add transitions and animation effects for a smoother interaction
  • Reduce the number of page reloads necessary to complete a task
  • Use media queries to re-style and optimize the interface based on various media resolutions

Apps used for spotting local deals, booking tickets and making time sensitive decisions are built on very specific user scenarios. In this cases, frequency, instead of duration of usage can accurately indicate a defined preference for the app. Frequency of usage can be a better indicator of user satisfaction and should be considered first in usability testing. Other measures include traffic data and performance indicators that help identify key points in the interface where user paths break before the task has been completed.

Working Time: Consumed to Achieve a State of Flow

The reason why users choose an application for everyday use is because they can achieve a state of flow while reaching their goals. In a state of flow, the time spent using an app may be neutral to users, as long as their expectations are still being met. Nonetheless, for resource intensive apps, that require longer processing times, designers should be more concerned with optimizing the UI elements to help users tolerate the passing of time in a more enjoyable way. This can include: designing better loading bars and providing an estimate of the time involved in certain tasks, allowing users customize the interface to fit their own workflow and setting up hot keys to speed up some steps. These techniques help increase user tolerance and give people a sense of control.

Photo by: Ken Blackwell on Flickr.

For applications where time sensitivity is not a primary concern, usability testing should focus on user workflows and learning curves. Before any user can develop a preference for a certain app, she must be able to learn using it really fast. If the learning curve encourages early adoption, users are more likely to become interested in using the app frequently and for longer periods of time.

A good measure of user involvement that can be tracked during the trial/learning period is the amount of time spent changing default settings to fit one's preferences, customizing the interface, setting up shortcuts, updating one's profile info and so on. This type of behavior is similar to moving to a new house or office and adding a personal touch to the places we expect to spend a lot of time in. Customization options are an important part of user workflows, because they make users experience positive emotions (feel skilled, competent, empowered, personally involved), necessary to achieving the state of "flow".

To sum it up, increase the chances of your users achieving a state of flow by designing applications that are accessible, enjoyable and can be customized to one's taste and preferences.

Endnote: Time perception is relevant in UX design because it shapes the interaction between users and interfaces. This article briefly presented three possibilities of time perception affecting user experience, although we barely touched the surface of a much broader topic. What are your thoughts: should time perception affect design decisions or not?

Resources: Seow, Steve, "Designing and Engineering Time: The Psychology of Time Perception in Software", Pearson Education, 2008

Johnson, Jeff, Ph. D., "Designing with the Mind in Mind: Simple Guide to Understanding User Interface Design Rules", Elsevier Inc., 2010



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