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This is the beginning and the introduction of a series on time perception in human-computer interaction – a topic I have spent the past year researching. I am very grateful to Steven Seow, PhD, whose research far exceeds and has been instrumental in informing my own. I highly recommend his book (linked to below).

We have something of an issue with our software at my current place of employment. It is perceived as being slow – though not necessarily slow given what it accomplishes for the end-user. There are different issues in terms of software speed – actual measure speed and speed perception. I’ll explain below. But, these problems are what set me off on this research. I needed to figure out if there was a way to change the perception of speed through interface design. In short: Is there a way to make the amount of time seem less than what it truly was? The short answer is yes. But, getting there was a longer answer.

There are three things you can essentially change in relation to speed. First, you can speed up the software or the process. (But, you may not be able to do anything about the speed of your software or the speed of whatever it is you are creating.) The second and third thing you can change is perception and tolerance. And that is what this series of posts will be about.

In the process of compiling research and putting together a presentation on this topic, I looked at time perception and tolerance in areas other than computer and digital interfaces. A colleague told me of some research he had come across in the past concerning elevators and how the floor indicator display was created as a method of feedback whilst people waited. Neither of us could find that research again. However, in the process of attempting to locate a source for that, I came across a number of stories concerning elevators and how to manage the inevitable wait times that occur as a result of using this technology.

One such story comes from Signal vs. Noise and details a New York office building where the occupants were complaining of the excessive wait times for the elevator. The age of the building along with other factors prevented anything from being improved mechanically. Occupants were threatening to break the terms of their leases and management convened a meeting to seek a solution. One member of the meeting was a psychologist who was perplexed that the tenants should be so upset over what was truly a minute or two of wait time. He concluded boredom was more likely the source than the actual length of the wait time.

“Therefore, he took the problem to be one of giving those waiting something to occupy their time pleasantly. He suggested installing mirrors in the elevator boarding areas so that those waiting could look at each other or themselves without appearing to do so. The manager took up his suggestion. The installation of mirrors was made quickly and at a relatively low cost. The complaints about waiting stopped.”

Today, it is quite common to see mirrors in lobbies where elevators are located.

The point to take away from this is that waiting time is different from time occupied. This is something so simple, we rarely ever think about it. But, we are often given diversions during wait times to transform the wait into occupied time. An even larger point here relates to the difference between the actual speed and the perceived speed of a given occurrence. The elevators were probably slow by comparison to other elevators. But, it was the perception of speed (or slowness) that was intolerable. If this were not the case, the simple addition of mirrors by the elevators would have made no difference.

Thus change the perception and the problem of slowness vanishes. Perception is malleable whereas the speed of an elevator, a software program or a process is not always in our control. A case in point is my next story.

A few years ago, I surprised my wife by taking her to see the Judge Mathis Show here in Chicago. We waited in the lobby cafe for 15-20 minutes so we could get in line and wait again to pass through security. Once we passed through security, we were herded into a waiting room that felt more like a detention center than a TV studio waiting area. We waiting there for nearly an hour and were finally herded once again onto the set. All of this time amounted to a couple of hours (we later found out the Judge’s plane had been delayed). As we were seated on the set to represent the audience, Doyle (the bailiff on the show) came running out and launched into a series of jokes – an improvised or rehearsed comedy routine, we couldn’t tell. The time flew from the second he came out. And he was actually quite funny. The point is: Doyle succeeded in transforming our wait time to occupied time, which, in turn, made the time fly by. This is the same type of diversion as the mirrors in the elevator. The perception of time while waiting in the detention center was much different than that of being entertained by Doyle. The latter was not a wait at all…or at least we did not perceive it as a wait.

Perception vs. Tolerance – In the examples above, we are shaping perception. Tolerance and perception are two different concepts. We shape perception when there is something about the system or the process we can change to make the perception of the duration shorter. Diverting our attention, for example, disguises the amount of time spent waiting. But, there may instances in which we cannot disguise the duration of time. And this is when we must attempt to increase the tolerance of the user. We can increase the tolerance through comedy by making the user laugh. We can increase the tolerance by underscoring the value of a process (i.e. it’s worth the wait). There are a number of methods. But for the time being, it is important to distinguish between shaping perception and managing tolerance. I’ll devote future posts to both of these topics.

To underscore just how a user experience can be shaped in terms of time, let’s consider the fitting software for hearing instruments I currently design features for. Via Bluetooth, the software can connect to a users hearing instruments and adjust the settings without the user having to remove them. We refer to this as “wireless fitting.” If the audiologist does not fit this way, they must have the user remove the instruments, hook up wires to them and connect to the computer. This is not ideal and takes some time. Some of our competitors have developed wireless solutions where the audiologist has the user wear elaborate receiving and transmitting devices. All of these solutions – to include the wireless solution we offer, Airlink – take time. However, we receive the most complaints from dispensers concerning Airlink. Essentially, the user sits down, the audiologist opens the software, clicks a button to connect and watches a green spinning circle that searches for the hearing instruments. This seems to take forever for them. The reason is that in this situation, the audiologist is waiting. In the other situations, they are hooking up wires and doing this and that. It is, once again, occupied time versus waiting time. Two very different things.

A solution would be to turn the waiting time into productive time. But, that is the subject of a future article.

The big points to take away here are:

  • Wait time is different from time occupied. Think about the last time you became immersed in an app on your phone and didn’t realize you had waited over an hour for your car repair or doctor’s appointment.
  • Change the perception and time no longer drags on. We can do this through changes to the interface, improved progress bars and accurately reporting time in a system among other techniques.
  • There is a clear distinction to be made between shaping perception and managing tolerance. The latter does not attempt to disguise the duration of time while the former does.
  • Ultimately, time is subjective and we humans are not very good at estimating time lapse on recall.

So if all of this is true (which it is), it means we have the ability to shape perception and manage tolerance within system interfaces, in situations where humans interact with technology and in nearly any situation where our users are subjected to a delay or wait. I’ll discuss both the importance of this along with specific techniques in future posts in this series. In the next post, I’ll discuss user flow and why it is so important to in managing the user’s perception of time.

Further Resources:

Designing & Engineering Time by Steven C. Seow, PhD

Designing with the Mind in Mind by Jeff Johnson