Context, time and technology

Sometime ago I wrote about designing for time use. I’d like to expand on that post and discuss how contextual cues frequently are erased by poor technology design.

Poorly designed technology is like Vegas: you don’t know what time of day it is because it treats every minute exactly the same. Humans don’t experience time this way and good designers should recognize that.

As most qualitative researchers will tell you, context matters in research. Designers would agree: great design solves contextually contingent problems. One hidden contextual aspect is that of time. Technologies have a way of transforming time that designers should be aware of.

Digital technologies “calculate” time: Blackberrys, iPhones, iPods and Microsoft Outlook provide precise measurements of time. We know what 15 minutes is because our Outlook calendars tell us with the ubiquitous pop-up message.

But the human mind does not “calculate” time, it experiences it. Sometimes this is slow, sometimes this is fast. We know that great experiences have a “flow like” timeless quality about them, mostly because our minds do not record events in precise minutes and seconds. Instead, we “lose track of time” when we enjoy something, or time drags when we do not.

Contrast these two “timescapes” and you can see how disruptive technology can become. Humans don’t know how long 15 minutes is, so we organize our lives through contextual signals like “lunch time” or “bed time” or even “banana time.”

Blackberrys count minutes, seconds and even milliseconds. They tell us precisely when it is 3 p.m. EST, but they cannot tell us if it’s “time for lunch,” or “time to get a coffee.” Humans organize themselves around these subtle, contextually contingent cues and digital technologies disrupt the natural flow of time when they “count” time instead of monitor it.

Good technology design goes beyond usability to managing this fissure between human time and digital time. Indeed, research has shown that well designed technology offers flow-like states.

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4 responses to “Context, time and technology

  1. Contextual design is quintessential to ‘good design’, especially when the end result is based upon empirical and existential observation. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to show the ROI of contextual design on a project unless there is a measurable chance of failure without it, and thus begins the paradox. Most people don’t believe design failure is possible without contextual design research. One of the issues that I deal with daily is convincing people that personas with variable / flexible characteristics are not a substitute for research. When a persona is created, it tends to get molded into whatever the describing person needs it to be in order to prove a point.

    Can it be that the context of failure is absent from the design process? Could that explain why its never a preventive measure?

    • You bring up a good point, John. All too often, we don’t tolerate failure at all. Good design is also about failure. Repeated failures. How about the Newton? NeXT computers? Many other bungled prototypes out of Apple Inc.?

      If there is no failure, then perhaps there is no design! Design is iterative! And those that believe personas can be pulled out of thin air? Then are not designing personas. There are not even designing.

  2. My feedback is that technology is a symptom, not a cause.

    Outlook, blackberries, etc. are responding to a business driver – the ability to measure and monetize work in a structured way. Outlook isn’t to blame for structuring days in 15 minute incremements – that’s been done for ages just with manual tools, foreman with stop watches, 9 to 5 work weeks, structured lunch breaks, shifts, etc.

    There is a business level disconnect between the creative knowledge worker who wants to work uninterupted and focus on deliverables and the project manager, boss, foreman, etc. who simply wants to know when the thing will be delivered, ensure that status meetings are attended, and that you’re clocking in your hours.

    Outlook Calendars are simply a manifestation of that factory, time-study style paradigm of work. You can make them more usable, but if the underlying working model is still trying to apply a early 20th century industrial factory model to a 21st century creative collaboration work model then technology will be caught between them.

  3. Chris, you’re totally right that foremen have been doing this with stop watches ever since industrialization.

    But there is a key difference with tools like outlook or time-tracking software or MS Project.

    Where once the foreman had to spend hours tallying up productivity figures for each worker, by hand, using analogue tools, he can now do it virtually instantaneously with digital tools.

    This is significant because it’s more intensively managed time than even factory time, which, as you rightly point out, is even WORSE for the creativity needed today.

    Totally agree there.

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