Humanizing Dates and Times

Content often relates to time in some way.  How to present time most effectively involves design decisions. Previously I discussed why content designers should think in terms of slices of time rather than specific dates.  In this post I want to elaborate on how audiences think about time, and how to humanize temporal information and present it in a way that fits everyday thinking.  Never mistake a deadline for the real goal.  Temporal information must support goals, rather than become the center of attention. It should be synchronized with our needs.

The Decline of Schedules

Twenty years ago many households had a VCR.  The only notable aspect of the VCR’s mundane appearance was its digital clock, which was often blinking after the electric power was interrupted, and no one could figure out how to reset the time. The blinking VCR clock, vainly calling for attention, became the butt of many commentaries about poor usability.  But why VCR clocks might go unset for so long went less remarked.  The VCR can tell us the time, but it didn’t tell us what we needed: when programs were being broadcast that we wanted to record.  Eventually interactive program guides provided the information users wanted, and they could choose the program, rather than the time.

Even today we have digital clocks that serve little purpose. Many microwaves have them. People have stopped wearing watches because time-displays are available on so many devices.  We synchronize our lives by pinging each other, rather than scheduling dates. We automate our calendars to pay our bills, and so doing worry less about today’s date.  For many activities,  audiences consider time as a choice to manage, rather than an obligation to fulfill.  People want the convenience of on-demand services, and scheduling is a barrier to that.  The more people fall out of the habit of scheduling, the harder the task of scheduling becomes.

Despite this big behavioral shift, content designers for the most part have not yet developed alternative paradigms to the clock- and calendar-centric expressions of temporal information.  Times and dates tend to be opaque: obstructing answers that audiences may be seeking.

Time as Information

How time can be used as a way to reveal options is an emerging challenge.  This weekend I was considering a visit to a storied landmark in Rome, the Castel Sant’Angelo. When I Googled to get details about an exhibit there, Google presented the following visual of times when the landmark was most busy.

Google search results displays popular times for visits to a tourist attraction.
Google search results displays popular times for visits to a tourist attraction.

The visual provided me with a rare moment of online delight.  I received useful information that I did not expect.  Tourist attractions in Rome can be busy on weekends, when budget airlines bring weekend visitors from across Europe.  Knowing when the landmark would be less busy is helpful.

The genius of the popular times display is that is answers a question that, while related to time, prioritizes the more important consideration: the experience associated with different times. It’s an example of the kind of temporal contextual information that will be increasingly common with the deployment of IoT sensors capturing time-stamped ambient information.

Dates as Proxies for Goals and Motivations

When people notice a date, they associate a meaning with that date.  If they fail to associate a meaning with the date, they will ignore the date entirely — it is just another abstract number.  An important question arises: Why does this date matter?  What’s significant about it?

Dates are often proxies for goals and motivations.  Does the date, or more specifically, the duration associated with the date, signify our ability to achieve a goal, or does it indicate a lack of progress?  It’s not the date per se that matters. It’s what it symbolizes to us. The date is just an ID number that we translate mentally into a signal of hope or despair.

range of goals and motivations according to time granularity
Range of goals and motivations according to time granularity

Some dates become symbols of us as individuals: they indicate where we are in the passage of time.  Other dates and times express the behavior of something we are interested in.  Dates embody events, which we evaluate with respect to a specific point in time. What that symbolizes to us will vary.

Events are bookmarked by a start and finish.  Those attributes shape four generic questions about events:

  • How long from beginning to end? (Duration)
  • How long since? (Relative time past)
  • How long until? (Relative time forward)
  • Is the event within a defined period? (Defined time period)
Goals associated with generic time-based events
Goals associated with generic time-based events

Embedded within a start date or an end date is a user goal. Users scan for information that would indicate how well they are meeting their goals.  The progress or deterioration of a situation is frequently a function of an event’s duration.  The urgency of the situation can be a function of how long it has been since something happened in the past.  The effort involved with a situation can be shaped by how far the end goal is in the future.  The length of time is a characteristic that can imply significant consequences to users.

The defined time period is a complex situation that arises surprisingly often.  Businesses, universities, and government departments all seem to love time-base eligibility requirements.  People want to know if they are eligible for a rebate, a scholarship, a tax credit or if their product warranty is still valid.  Instead of finding a simple answer, they are forced to compare how their activities comply with some arbitrary qualifying start and end dates.

Translating and Transforming Temporal Information

Focus on how audiences attach significance to time-related information. Provide it in a format that audiences will notice and use.

The presentation of temporal information needs to take advantage of intrinsic capabilities of digital formats — without making audiences focus on the arcane presentation native to those formats.  Content designers should translate temporal information into the language of the audience, and transform temporal data into answers that audiences care about.

Computer time and date formats are precise and granular — forcing audiences to think what the information means in everyday terms. Fortunately, software libraries are available to translate computer dates into more intelligible language.  Among the most useful is Moment.js, a JavaScript library.  Moment can translate time and date information between different locales (non-English as well as different English language variants).  It contains a function called “humanize” which translates numeric values into verbal phrases.  In instead of seeing “1 day” or “24 hours,” audiences can see “a day.”

Moment.js humanize function (via Moment.js)
Moment.js humanize function (via Moment.js)

Moment also reduces complexity by rounding times to whole units that audiences will be able to notice and grasp more readily.  Few people want to see that something happened 27 hours ago; they’d rather see it displayed as happening yesterday.

Moment.js value ranges (via Moment.js)
Moment.js value ranges (via Moment.js)

These capabilities come together to allow Moment to perform near-natural language calculations on dates.  Users can add two months to a date, without worrying about how many days the intervening months have.  They can subtract days from a date, and get an answer expressed as “Last Wednesday.”  The granularity of units can be adjusted, so that information can be rounded to whatever level of detail is most appropriate.  This capability is helpful when users need to know if two dates might fall in the same time period.  For example, if I delay doing something by 45 days, will the activity still be in the same year, or be pushed into the following year?

Moment recognizes concepts such as the beginning and end of the day.  It also has capabilities to parse natural language date inputs to convert them into computer-friendly date formats.  These capabilities will be increasingly important as people interact with computers through voice interfaces.  Calendars don’t work well with voice input and output. People need common language ways to transform temporal information.

Moment.js calendar and relative time options (via Moment.js)
Moment.js calendar and relative time options (via Moment.js)

Framing Time to Support Goals

Humans frame events according to periods that are significant to them.  Organizations sometimes insist on making their customers adapt to the organization’s schedule, resulting in maddening situations involving proration.  Instead of basing schedules linked to one’s own life events, people are expected to follow the schedule and calendar of the service provider.  A better approach comes (ironically) from the DMV [division of motor vehicles], who link driver’s license renewals to birthdays.

We can support audience goals and motivations when we synchronize time-related information around their perspective. People often define cultural artifacts in terms of their decade (e.g., music or TV shows from the 1980s).  Let’s imagine you and a friend both went to university together in the 1990s.  You are both film buffs, and enjoyed watching movies together.  You get in a debate about who was the best actor in the 1990s.  Many questions about superlatives involve time frames. We don’t care who won the most awards ever; we care about who won or was nominated for awards in the time period that’s most significant to us.

You and your friend remember Michael Caine and Tom Hanks were nominated for Bafta awards in 1998.  So which got more recognition during the entire decade?  A seemingly straightforward question, trying to identify the actor who got the most nominations, becomes an involved research project.  Googling the question doesn’t generate an answer: it only generates links that must be read and assessed.

Questions involving superlatives often involve needing to transform date-related values.
Questions involving superlatives often involve needing to transform date-related values.

Film trivia might seem like a pale example to illustrate how poorly content is structured to help people frame their time-related questions. While low in importance, it can be high in the motivation it elicits.  Some people want to know such details, and have trouble getting the answers.  But consider the opposite situation: something serious, but where motivation is low.  When does one need a twice-a-decade medical screening, that promises no fun?  This is the kind of issue that doesn’t align with a specific calendar date.  People need to see a realistic window in which they can schedule the event.  When they go beyond that window they need to receive an appropriately worded communication about how overdue the person is, and the significance of that delay.

Linking Events, Temporal Information, and Actions

When we need to do something is closely linked to what we will be doing and why we are doing it.  Event-related content is intimately linked to temporal information.   Temporal information can trigger user actions.  Temporal information is the glue tying together what’s significant to the audience, and what they may need to do.

When something happens should be secondary to what happens and why it happens.  Temporal information needs to be presented in the most motivating format possible.  It needs to reflect the context of the user, not the context of the clock or calendar.  It needs to be humanized, so people can understand the importance of the time mentioned.  That requires us to think like the audience: to know if they think about the topic in terms of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or years.  And it requires us to help them see what’s typical or should be expected.

—Michael Andrews