The Illusion of Time

Adrian Zumbrunnen
Aug 26, 2015 · 15 min read
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Clockwork architecture drawing

“Remember, time is the most precious gift of all.”

Maybe not as dramatic as uncle Ben’s last words in Spider-Man but it made an impact in the way I think about design ever since. Time is the most valuable and limited resource we have. That’s why good design is about saving time.


Time in the digital age

Designing digital experiences comes with an ingrained obsession. The obsession of speed and performance. Amazon calculated that an increased loading time of just one second could cost it $1.6 billion in sales each year. Google loses about 8 million searches (and ad displays) when page speed decreases by just four tenths of a second — scary shit!

Time <> Interaction Design

Time is a crucial part of interaction design. At the end of the day, the absolute minutes and seconds users have to wait won’t really matter though. It’s about how people experience and remember them.

1.

Keep Users Engaged

What about the web?

In the good old days when people used Internet Explorer to browse the web, we always had to look at a blank canvas until a new page was loaded:

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Internet Explorer Windows 98

2.

Perform Actions Optimistically

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Fav feature as seen on Twitter.

3.

Create Transitional Interfaces

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Branded interactions in mobile apps
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4.

Avoid Modal Spinners

While the intentions behind progress indicators are good, the end result can actually turn out to be bad because by definition they call attention to the fact that someone needs to wait.

– Luke Wroblewski

5.

Communicating longer waits

  • Do I know the expected waiting time and feel it’s appropriate?
  • Do I understand why I have to wait in the first place?
  • Am I dealt with honestly or do I have to wait longer than others?
  • Is there a delicious food scent in the air?

Progress Bars

An indispenable tool that comes to mind when looking for means to communicate progress is quite obvious: the good’ol progress bar. It turns out there are better and worse progress bars out there. So when is a progress bar bad?

Speeding up progress bars

Time is subjective. What if we could change the perception of speed and time with a few simple design adjustments? Would we get away with it? A study conducted by Chris Harrison tried to answer this question. Here is what they’ve found.

Progress Bar Study by Chris Harrison

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Countdowns / ETA

While the progress bar is a higly visual tool to communicate progress, it’s often not enough. Particularily longer waits demand a more precise indicator. Enter the countdown.

“[…] The pilot who repeatedly announces “only a few more minutes” adds insult to injury when the wait goes on and on. Not only are the customers being forced to wait, but they are not being dealt with honestly.”

Users can greatly profit from feedback displays for longer waits. It allows them to do other things and come back later. Again, precision isn’t as important as one might think. It’s about giving users a rough idea how long the whole thing will take. Will it take a minute or two, or more than 10 minutes?

6.

Load Content Progressively

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Progressive (left) vs baseline loading.
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Facebook content placeholder by George Philipps
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Tick. Tock.

Our perception of time, and every experience people have with the things we put in this world is shaped by various factors we might not be aware of. As long as technology doesn’t fully eliminate waiting, we can take advantage of our subjective perception of the world and make the experiences we craft a little more snappy, seamless and captivating.

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Thanks to jessicaseeger

Adrian Zumbrunnen

Written by

Design at Google. Formerly iA. My website talks to you.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +685K people. Follow to join our community.

Adrian Zumbrunnen

Written by

Design at Google. Formerly iA. My website talks to you.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +685K people. Follow to join our community.

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