Tag Archives: dates

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

Content About Slices of Time

Calendars can rule our lives. Digital ones often seem to determine our choices, instead of reflecting our choices. Yet when structured appropriately, dates can be used in creative ways to enhance value for audiences.  To do this requires us to think more conceptually about slices of time.

Dates are an important data format that can be linked to other kinds of data to deliver valuable information to audiences. Dates structure personal experiences, but should not define them. While some dates are certain and non-negotiable, such as a birthday or an anniversary, many dates are contingent on various factors such as cost or convenience.  People often don’t want the date to be the main criteria driving what they seek. They would rather prioritize other considerations, and see what dates are best fits.

The dreaded date picker: bane of many users
The dreaded date picker: bane of many users

Content designers often expect people to think in terms of precise calendar dates.  A long-established paradigm involves making people specify date ranges. If users don’t like the answer, they are forced to enter a new search with an alternate set of dates. Even visual approaches, involving graphic displays of results and sliders, still require from the user unnecessary interaction. Too often, the user is left to query a database, and fiddle with specifying beginning and ending dates, to discover what’s best or most notable. Computers should be doing more of that discovery work.

People want to know about blips, cycles and trends that can be hard to notice.  They don’t want to do lots of work to uncover these insights. Computers generate time-related content by asking users questions about specific dates. Yet people really want answers, not the ability to specify queries.  An over-focus on question-asking capabilities can become burdensome. A better experience would provide answers to common questions involving date ranges, without demanding that people enter specific dates when it is not necessary.  How can one offer useful answers without audiences asking? How can we stop making people hunt for answers?  One key is to frame answers in terms of chunks of time.

Three Kinds of Time-Slicing

Date ranges can be thought of as chunks or slices of time. Three kinds of time slices provide data:

  • Disjointed
  • Overlapping
  • Cumulative

Each orientation surfaces different information of value to audiences.  Different forms of date ranges answer different questions.  Slices define the characteristics of an event for a person: how long the event is, when it starts and stops, and the advantages or disadvantages of a given period.  We can offer different kinds of answers using different time-slicing patterns.

source: Borner & Polley, Visual Insights, MIT Press (redrawn)
source: Börner & Polley, Visual Insights, MIT Press (redrawn)

Disjoint (Sequential) Time Patterns

When audiences think about time as calendar months, or weeks that start on Sunday and end on Saturday, they chunk the time into discrete units. Disjoint time patterns apply anytime people can’t do multiple things simultaneously.  For example, they can’t be in two separate cities at the same time, or they can’t invest the same fixed sum of money in two different funds at the same time. Such time periods can’t overlap.

Some periods will be predefined, perhaps according to a common convention, such as holiday weekends.  In other cases people want to define the length of a chunk, and then be able to arrange the sequencing according to a set of criteria.

Disjoint chunks of time can answer:

  • What holiday weekend had the highest grossing film this year?
  • What companies were most frequently mentioned in the business press 48 hours immediately following the last Federal Reserve interest rate decision?
  • From a cost perspective, is it cheaper to first visit City A for two days, then City B for three days, or vise versa, given hotel availability?

When comparing two different slices of time, the slices may be either spaced apart, or contiguous.  Slices that are spaced apart will generally be conceptually similar or equivalent to create a meaningful comparison, such as when comparing holiday weekends.

Contiguous slices are more flexible. They can be used to explore possible causal relationships, such as revealing performance or activities during some duration that follows some other event.

The other use of contiguous time slices is to determine the optimal sequencing of the slices.  Trip planning is a common task that involves sequencing chunks of time.  It can be frustrating to re-enter arrival and departure dates to calculate options and costs. People want to know that hotels are in short supply in City A during a certain weekend but will be widely available after that weekend.  They would rather be in City B on the weekend, and go to City A after.  There’s an opportunity to simplify the task for users by highlighting answers based on headline-costs associated with chunks of time, instead of focusing on transactional options and details.

Overlapping (Fluid) Time Patterns

Overlapping time periods look at variations in blocks of time of a set duration.  It typically answers question such as when is the best time to do something, or when was the most active period for an issue.

Overlapping chunks of time can answer:

  • What five-day period will have the lowest average hotel room rate?
  • What two-week period is statistically most likely to have the most sunshine?
  • What 30-day period had the highest return for a specific stock?
  • During what 10-day period last year was a specific product most frequently mentioned on Twitter?

The duration may reflect a length of time that’s significant to the user.  Owners of stocks, for example, may gain a tax benefit by holding a stock for a minimum of thirty days, so they are interested in the return for that period.  Durations for other topics reflect a sensible “window” to look at a variable, because sustained performance over this period will be considered significant.

Many times an answer to a well-framed question will spark a follow-on action. For someone looking to visit Seattle when it is not foggy or raining, knowing the sunniest days there will be enough to book travel during that period. For answers that reveal periods of high or low performance, the user may be interested in looking into what was happening during that period that would explain the performance.

The user can also explore how changing the date range to an earlier or later time slice changes the results.  Ideally, they can simply indicate the concept of “earlier” or “later” to modify the answer, rather than having to enter specific dates.

Cumulative (Maximizing) Time Patterns

Cumulative time patterns answer the question of what period produces optimal value.  Sometimes value is determined in terms of a fixed resource that gets depleted: the goal is to maximize the duration before the resource is gone.  Other times the value is open ended, and the goal is to locate the best period when the total value of a resource can be maximized.

Cumulative chunks of time can answer:

  • What’s the longest number of days one can stay at a ski resort for $3000, and when is that?
  • How long and when was the longest winning streak for a sports team?
  • In what time periods does a city have a sustained above average number of visitors?

The example of booking a stay at a ski resort flips how making a reservation is typically framed. Some people start with a budget and want to know how they can get the most value from that sum of money, so they can to discover dates, rather than input dates.

The user’s goal can also be to minimize a value. Suppose the goal is to make sure bad timing doesn’t spoil your vacation.  You want to make sure that when you visit a medium size city, that it doesn’t correspond to the timing of a big doctor’s convention or trade show for industrial engineers. In the past you’ve found it difficult to make restaurant reservations in cities hosting such events. So you might want to screen for times that are less busy.  How that screening is performed in the background is irrelevant to the user, though the content designer could draw on various indicators from airport data to hotel bookings data to provide a signal.

Windows of Opportunity

Think about what information audiences most want to know in relation to a slice of time.  What are the windows of opportunity as the audience sees them, and how do they define what’s important?  What information, on what issues, can support decision making by an audience, or spark interest in a topic and encourage deeper engagement?

While data plays an important role, the database should be in the background.  The goal is not to give audiences the ability to ask any question, or to supply answers to any scenario.  Rather, the goal is to identify key issues of interest to audiences, and find ways to answer questions about these issues with a minimum of user effort.

Once issues are identified, content designers need to determine if they have the information available to provide the answers.  A powerful combination results when the content designer can integrate internal time-based data, with external time-based data tapped through a third party’s API.

Although the questions answered may be factual and data-oriented, the answers can be enhanced with interpretation. Date-centered questions provide writers with opportunities to provide context to answers. These may be in the form of articles about “best times to” do an activity, or background explaining notable episodes relating to a thing or person.

Content design should look beyond stated requirements to think about opportunities that provide additional value to audiences, in ways they haven’t yet articulated.

— Michael Andrews