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Five Do's and Don'ts for Managing UI Time Perception

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Time is a very fluid thing. Ten minutes can feel like an eternity for a user in a hurry, or mere seconds when the user is engrossed. Steven C. Seow addresses these issues of time perception by pointing out some good ideas to try and some bad practices to avoid.
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Every interaction in your solution (software applications, internal company tools, instruments, websites, and so on) requires end users to expend time. How it’s designed—internally in the data access layer, the business logic layer, etc., or externally in the presentation layer—can make or break the user experience. My book Designing and Engineering Time: The Psychology of Time Perception in Software presents various techniques that you can apply to the design of your solution (particularly at the user interface level) and violations that you should avoid. This article summarizes some of those key techniques and violations, listing the do’s and don’ts for five application features that are notorious for wasting not only users’ time but also their tolerance.

Downloading and Uploading Files

Downloading and uploading are common processes for many kinds of applications and websites. Users are accustomed to seeing file transfers in progress, but most of the time they just want to know how much longer it’s going to take, not how long it has taken so far. (No point in frustrating the user by emphasizing that he’s been waiting quite a while for your app to finish up—unless you want your support staff to get nasty email messages.)

  • Don’t report elapsed time.
  • Do give "good faith" time estimates.

Don’t Report Elapsed Time

Never report elapsed time in your user interface (UI) unless it’s absolutely necessary to do so. Knowing elapsed time is useful only in limited situations, such as for diagnostics and testing. Mainstream users typically don’t benefit from knowing how long a download has taken so far, or how long it took to complete (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1 Unless there’s a strong reason to display elapsed time, don’t show it in your user interface.

Do Give "Good Faith" Time Estimates

Uncertainty is one of the biggest culprits in causing users frustration. Not knowing how long something will take is infuriating in any situation—not just when interacting with a software application or a website. To plan their priorities and organize their tasks, users rely on the estimates provided by the UI. If the wait is going to be long, for example, the user may want to step out of the office or make an important phone call. Whenever possible, give users a good estimate before the process starts, indicating how long the process might take.

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