The Aspect of Time in User Experience

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So many aspects of UX design allude to the time variable as central to the experience, but it is often an afterthought in the design process. The aspect of time in experience design has evolved from simply fast performance to the nature of interaction itself, so it is time (pun intended) we added it to our list of criteria to tackle.

UX evaluation is based on a familiar set of basic criteria:

  • Visual Design – How does the application look visually?
  • Functionality – What kind of things can the user do?
  • Build – Is it secure? Does it work?
  • Brand – Is it marketable? What users does it appeal to?

Recently, I started noticing the word “moment” pop up across many different services – Facebook has “moments”, Twitter has “moments”. It seems that a central theme to the interactions users choose to engage with is time.

How can we add the time variable to the familiar roster of design criteria to accommodate the growing need of time definition in interaction design?


It has become a cliché to say “it should be simple to use so my mom can figure it out in seconds”. The truth is, users should figure out how to use an app/site in a short amount of time – yes, but that time should be relative to the type of experience the app/site provides.

There was a much talked about 4-second timeframe that came about just as the web design field was maturing and designers began looking to basic psychology to create more appealing experiences.

This was a great start to thinking about this very important concept, but the truth is it was a gross generalization. In reality, time is so relative to each individual application that there cannot be one rule for all.

Time Vs. The Perception of Time

We can scientifically break down time in interaction design and follow a set of rules. For instance, we can test the time it takes users to find a specific element on a page, and we can do performance testing on the true responsiveness of an application feature. Though valuable, such breakdowns must account for the perception of time as well, which, I argue, is more important to users than time itself.

Let’s define the two terms to understand the differences:

  • Time – “the measured or measurable period during which an action, process, or condition exists or continues” (according to Merriam-Webster)
  • The Perception of Time – This is a more complex term to define, as it is largely dependent on the context in which it is mentioned (a very good writeup can be found here).

In interaction design, the perception of time is a combination of actual time between events, and the psychological state of mind of the user, including expectations and an existing sense of urgency.

Examining Time Perception

Let’s take a closer look at the ways time perception is evident in today’s popular digital experiences:

My favorite subject for UX studies, LinkedIn, is a complex site full of intricate design considerations, and the experience of time on LinkedIn is fascinating.

To the novice user, and maybe even experienced users, the homepage interface is quite complex. There are suggested endorsements to cycle through, companies suggested to the user to follow, there is the news feed full of people, jobs, articles, all at once! The scrolling is infinite, and so is the information. With time, LinkedIn becomes easier to use. The interface affords many avenues to take and the user has the freedom to choose how they want to use the application in a way that benefits them in achieving their goals.

Once the user learns their favorite way of using LinkedIn it becomes easy and quick. This learning curve takes time, which is a calculated balance between the complexity of the data available and the user’s short attention span. Because in the case of LinkedIn, the user may have complicated goals (such as researching companies they potentially want to work for or making a connection with a mentor), they do not necessarily anticipate, or want, a micro-interaction centered experience.

The complexity of the user’s goals warrants a deeper experience, one that affords the user control, and a level of customization only achieved by an intricate process requiring the investment of time.

On the other hand, there are plenty of applications that seek to diminish our already disappearing attention span.

What gained popularity a few years ago with the original giants of social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) offering users quick glimpses into each other’s lives, news, and entertainment, has infiltrated almost all other aspects of our inactions today.

And the experiences have become even more simplified, looking to diminish the time necessary for the user to learn the application and interact with it. Imagine if an app like Snapchat was as complicated to use as LinkedIn. It probably wouldn’t take off as it did. It’s simple premise does not warrant the investment of time.

Snapchat affords a very fast experience – in terms of a simple functionality, which the user can quickly understand, and the fast performance of said functionality. The intention of Snapchat is to be quick, experienced in a snap, and the time variable throughout the interaction is a complement to its’ concept.

Again – we see a clear correlation between functionality and time; time as a contributing factor to the perception of an experience.

Communicating time to users through visual cues and feedback

One of the most common examples of time related feedback is when an application is “thinking”. When a user expects a complex search result to appear on the screen they are often ok with seeing a spinning wheel (for a short amount of time, of course) because it gives off the impression that the application is thinking long and hard in giving them the best calculated result possible.

The spinning wheel is only a form of visual feedback, it is not necessary for the application to actually perform a task; it is merely a way for the application to communicate to the user that it is working. In other words – it is comforting.

Furthermore, if a user performs an additional search, they would find an instantaneous appearance of new results unsettling – “was my new search criteria taken into account?” “Are these the same results from my previous search?” “Are these results accurate in true time, or are cached?”

An application taking its time (measured in milliseconds, that is) is equivalent to a person thoughtfully answering a question instead of blurting out the first thing that comes to mind.

The time it takes the user to accomplish a task is no longer solely dependent on information architecture, but also on gestures. The iOS Human Interface Guidelines offer a variety of gestures that result in interface feedback. when selecting gestures to assign to specific tasks within an app designers must take into account the time it takes to perform a gesture as it correlates to the time perception of the task the gesture accomplishes, no matter how imperceptible the difference.

Swiping left and right through photos, for example, is a “slower” gesture – the photos drag and snap and the motion required takes the user just one millisecond longer than simply clicking a photo. In the case of browsing through photos however, this time expense may be acceptable, because this experience resembles leisurely browsing through a magazine.

Integrating Time into the UX process

When designing interactions we must take into account the factor of time in the following ways:

  1. The time the application genuinely takes to respond
  2. The perception of time the user has through application events
  3. The time it takes the user to figure out how an application works
  4. The time it takes the user to take the necessary steps to use the application

Each of the time considerations relates directly to an existing part of the design process:

  1. The time the application genuinely takes to respond – directly related to the technical build of the application
  2. The perception of time the user has through application events – the feedback the user receives from the application through visual cues and interaction design
  3. The time it takes the user to figure out how an application works – largely dependent on visual design and layout, as well as user research
  4. The time it takes the user to take the necessary steps to use the application – dependent on information architecture and careful planning of efficient user flow of tasks, as well as interaction design

Adding the variable of time to these already familiar processes ensures that the outcome corresponds with the perception of time most closely aligned with the user’s expectations and the product’s intentions.

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