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.