Design and the psychology of time

4 min read
Cassius Kiani
  •  Jul 14, 2016
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The difference between design and art is that design focuses on solving problems, and art… well, art looks nice. 

But that’s it—art doesn’t solve problems for our usersTwitter Logo, and in a startup-heavy world, users have more pain and problems than we can even begin to accommodate.

One problem all users will always have in common: timeTwitter Logo.

We might be changing the world each and every day, but there’s a good chance there’ll always be 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week, and 52 weeks in a year. We can’t create more time.

They’re finally making a movie about clocks. It’s about time.

Even though time is so important in design, we never dive into the psychology behind time or the perspectives our users have of their own time. After all, time is subjective, and though we’ll never precisely know how someone feels about their time, we can categorize their thought process.

Psychologists call this time perspective. It gives us all a better understanding of how people think, view, and value time.

“One problem all users will always have in common: time.”

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Here at Mikleo, time perspective has helped us (and our clients) design new features, profile personas, and clarify early-stage assumptions. It’s been a hidden gem in our workflow, and you need to add it to yours. Let’s take a closer look at the different approaches to time perspective and how to apply them to design.

Past-positive and past-negative

If you or someone you know spends time living in the past, then you’re looking at a past-positive or past-negative time perspective.

With a positive perspective, you’ve got a rose-tinted view of the past: fun, bubbly, and lots of happy experiences. With a negative perspective, it’s the opposite and acts as more an anchor than a lease of life, with a focus on the not-so-good stuff.

Image from Inside Design: Netflix.

Past perspectives focus on remembering the experience. No matter if that experience was good or bad, users are likely to remember it vividly and for a long time.

It also means that friends and family in their circles will hear about these experiences at least a few times over.

Pleasing users with past perspectives doesn’t require perfection—just build in elements of humanity and fun. Clever animations, beautiful characterization, and anything that can add a moment of delight to your users is perfect here.

News app QZ focuses on the past, and it delivers a positive experience no matter what’s happening in the world. Interactions with the app are similar to texting your best friend—you can respond with emojis, and all of the responses are short and easy to digest.

Screenshot of the QZ app.

Even the calls to action are quite delightful. Nothing within the app feels forced, and there are plenty of gentle cues to delight users. For users with a past perspective, the experience is upbeat, memorable, and incredibly human (did we mention we’re fans of the emojis?).

One more screenshot of the QZ app.

Present-hedonist and present-fatalist

Having a present perspective means you’re focused on the here and now.

As a hedonist, emphasis is on short-term gains and gratification, pleasure over pain, and simplicity over frustration.

Fatalists believe the majority of their decisions or actions are outside of their immediate control and that others control the outcome.

“Find out what adds value for your users and give it to them in a timely way.”

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For present perspectives, building quick and simple gratification into designs will please even the most cynical fatalist.Twitter Logo From badges to thank you messages, find out what adds value for your users and give it to them in a timely way (without too much heavy lifting).

Snapchat is dangerously good at simple gratification. From the moment you start using the app, it’s entirely focused on the most gratifying (and exciting) asset we all have: ourselves. Take pictures, customize, and send. It’s a low-involvement workflow that’s simple to learn. Best of all, every picture you take vanishes in a matter of seconds. No need to worry about how these images could affect anything other than the here and now.

A key to Snapchat’s gratification, from your favorite internet DJ.

Future and transcendental orientation

The reality is, thinking about the future isn’t something that comes naturally to most people. Having a future perspective requires things like stability and security. If you’re worried about being able to pay your rent, you won’t be future-focused at all.

A transcendental view means you’re looking to make a mark on the world and continue your legacy past your own existence.

For future orientation, you need to design elements of long-term value, coupled with moments of quick gratification for when things get tough.

Progress tracking and reward-based goals and achievements work well here. Show users how far they’ve come and what they could be in the future.Twitter Logo

With their “game-ified” approach to training your mind, Elevate weaves long-term value for the future-orientated by using comparative statistics, unlockable challenges, and a system that tracks and showcases the progress you’ve made as a user.

Learning is one of those catch-22 situations. You know there’s long-term value in dedicating your time to learning. But there are no immediate results, so when things get tough, it’s easy to get stuck in the here and now.

When you hit these walls, Elevate keeps up your momentum with bright colors, happy sounds, and some motivational words of wisdom.

Uncovering time perspectives

Finding out which perspectives resonate with your users helps you make more informed decisions and early-stage assumptions. In short, it makes life easier.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t cater for all time perspectives, but knowing which perspectives are most prominent will help you prioritize the work and features that’ll add the most value.

There are 2 ways to get the information you’ll need: 

  1. Passive research (looking at data)
  2. Active research (talking to people)

Even if you’re not involved in with the research itself, knowing what to look out for will help you contribute or, if you ever need to, do the research yourself.

Passive research

Use this as a minor indicator. For example, a group of teenagers is more likely to contain hedonists than a group of retirees.

Marital status
Marriage implies a more future-focused view, while being single or in a relationship can hint at a more present- or past-focused perspective.

How safe are they at home? If your users are exposed to crime or violence, their time perspectives are unlikely to be future-orientated.

Different professions focus on time in different ways. Surgeons, for instance, might need to stay past-positive to avoid undue mental stress.

If you’re interested in finding out your own time perspective, this is the test for you. It’ll also give you a wealth of qualitative questions to ask users in calls or interviews.

“Adding time perspective to your design workflow is a game-changer.”

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Asking your users time-specific questions like “Do you do things impulsively?” or “Is it important to leave a mark on the world?” open up a world of knowledge. Though some of these may seem obvious, we recommend using them like a coat of white paint.

Change the language and questions to suit your situation, but try to keep the sentiment the same—you’ll get answers you can analyze and easily assign a time perspective to.

Adding time perspective to your design workflow is a game-changer.Twitter Logo Ever since we added it to ours, we’ve never looked back.

Read more posts by Cassius Kiani

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