Designing with time in mind

This is the write-up of my talk at EuroIA 2013 containing my thoughts for the presentation and a set of additional resources that I found useful whilst writing my talk.

When you observe the recent rise of mobile companies such as Instagram, Twitter and SnapChat you can spot similarities in the way they approach time. They show you what happened in the last day, hour or second and they are brilliant at it. At conferences, restaurants, buses, at work or even in bed, everywhere you find people endlessly refreshing their feed, forever sucked into the eternal now.

We’re great at building tools for the now; we can design products that hypnotise people in forever refreshing. But surely we shouldn’t stop there. Digital technology can be so much more than just entertainment. What about the future? Can we build tools for the long now?

he question I want to explore is: what are the ingredients that allow us to successfully design for the organisation of time? Not just in second and nanoseconds but also years and decades. I will discuss this in three parts: first, time artefacts, such as clocks and calendars, we’ve developed to make sense of time. Second, the way our mind works with time, and finally, how we can apply this knowledge in the digital world.

1. Time Artefacts
Time artefacts are tools that we use to make sense of time. At first glance time seems simple: it just ticks away at one second per second. Upon investigation we find that it’s not time that is challenging us, but the change and uncertainty that comes with it. The further we try to look ahead, the less clear everything becomes.
Screen Shot 2013-12-07 at 22.18.24

This is what futurists call the cone of uncertainty: the further you look into the future the more scenarios become possible.

We build “designer environments” in which human reason is able to far outstrip the computational ambit of the unaugmented biological brain.

– Andy Clark (Professor of Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh)
in Being There

To deal with time, change and uncertainty, we’ve created a system of ideas and artefacts to think in. It’s what Andy Clark calls “designer environments”, an arrangement of thought-systems and artefacts that allows us to be a lot smarter than we’d be if we‘d rely on our brain alone.

These designer environments are nothing new. For centuries people –often incentivised by the rulers of the day– set out to design their way through time-related challenges. Over the last 4000 years we can see how priests, emperors, popes, kings and eventually contemporary designers, scientists and business people have spent fortunes to master time.

1.1 Stonehenge
What can inform us about the right time for planting and sowing, and when can we be expecting rain? – the priests at Stonehenge might have wondered. For the early humans time was very much connected with the earth and the heavens, and they used the movements of moon, sun and planets to make the first workable mapping of the months, seasons and years. The amazing alignment of Stonehenge to the summer and winter solstice shows just what a splendid job they did.

1.2 Roman Empire
A bit closer to us, about 2000 years ago, the Roman Emperors struggled to make a more precise calendar that would help them run their vast empire. For most of their rule the Romans had the Fasti Antiates Maiores (ca. 60 BC), a calendar where the year started in March, and had an intercalary month, a block of time at the end of the year created to adjust between the cycle of the seasons and the date of the year. Although in theory this inter-calendar month should work, its dependency on the emperor to decide when it came and how many days it should last meant that it was very vulnerable to political power play. The ability to add or subtract a few days to the year to extent a favourable policy meant that the warmest day was slowly moving towards December. When Caesar came to power he set out to fix this mess. He started the year in January, aligned the months with the cycle of the earth, got rid of the intercalary month, spread the newly available days over the months until the months added up to 365 days and finished it off by turning February into a leap month that would have an extra day once every four years. Happy with these accomplishments, the Roman Senate named the month of July in his honour. When the Senate decided to later honour August also with his own month and rename Sextilles, they created themselves a political conflict: Julius’s month, July, had 31 days, whilst the original Sextilles had only 30, giving August one day less could easily be seen as an insult and as a solution they decided to take yet another day of the year’s shortest month bringing February down to 28 days.

1.3 Christianity
In the 1500 years that followed many small improvements were made. The days of the week got names, the weekend showed up, the popes used their power to start counting the years from the birth of Jesus (instead of the method preferred by kings and emperors to start anew every time one came to power) and the with the spread of Christianity the Roman calendar system spread out over Europe.

The Gregorian calendar is one of the most successful ideas in the history of civilisation.

– Dan Falk
Author of In Search of Time

Yet a small set of inaccuracies remained. During his rule pope Gregory XIII focused on bringing the date for the Easter celebration to the date which the First Council of Nicaea had agreed upon in 325 –and address the difference between the calendar length of the year (including a leap year every 4 years) 365.25 days and the real length 365.242199 days. In 1582 he solved it by changing the exact sequence of  leap years (removing 3 leap days per 400 year) and accounting for the errors of the past had to remove 11 days from the calendar. Unsurprisingly it took a while for the all the European countries to pick up on this decisions and  only in 1923 the last country adopted the Gregorian calendar. In Greece Wednesday, 15 February 1923, was followed by Thursday, 1 March, finally syncing up all of Europe.

1.4 Kings

Maximilian used vivid printed images like this to establish the genealogy and legitimacy of his house and the authority of his rule, both of which were actually newer and shakier than he would like to admit.

– Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton
in Cartographies of Time

Time meanwhile was also used in other ways. Kings, especially those who wanted to start a new dynasty after overthrowing the old one, had to make a case of how their rule made sense within historical context. For that reason they poured vast parts of their fortune in to the research and development of family trees and timelines. And although this work in the long run did not bring them the everlasting power they hoped for, it can be seen as one of the great-grandfathers of the current-day Gantt Chart.

1.5 Traders
The last design challenge is the creation of the first reliable clock, that came forward from the the quest of determining longitude at sea. In 1714, the British government offered a longitude prize of several million pounds in today’s currency for a method of solving this problem.

Navigators could determine their latitude by measuring the sun’s angle at noon. To find their longitude, however, they needed a time standard that would work aboard a ship. The purpose of this was to accurately measure the time of a known fixed location, for example the time at Greenwich Observatory. Knowing GMT at noon allowed the navigator to use the time difference between the ship’s position and the Greenwich Meridian to determine the ship’s longitude. However, although the theory was known, the most advanced instrument, the pendulum clock, was entirely unsuitable of solving the problem. (wikipedia) It was only with the creation of the H5 by John Harrison the once impossible problem was solved.

And so after 4000 years of political intrigues and hard work, we wound up with a neat system of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years to break the infinity of time into manageable chunks.Screen Shot 2013-12-07 at 22.22.20

Combined with a set of tools and patterns we can now freely build systems that match the ambiguity of the time problems we’re facing.

The clock dissociated time from human events and helped create belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences; the special world of science. By the close of the seventeenth century, time was seen as an abstract entity that marched forward without regards for human activity.

– Lewis Mumford
in In Search of Time

However an unexpected side effect of mapping the heavens to understand time was that the heavens started to play less of a role. Our modern-day calendars no longer have images of the zodiac, sun, moon or the different seasons, but rely on cold hard numbers instead. We moved from a circular time dictated by the cycles of nature to a linear system dictated by human technology. Our accomplishment of creating a system that maps time drastically altered the way we experience time.

2. Time in Mind
Now that we’ve familiarised ourselves with some of the thinking behind our set of time patterns, it’s useful to focus on the psychology of thinking with time.

We can think about the evolution of time-thinking in three steps. It started with a gut feeling for an ‘if this, then that’ scenario: if there’s a tiger, I will be eaten. We developed a language to think and talk about these events. And the further development of language helped us to tell and share stories: it’s best to climb in trees when tigers are near. Stories meant we could think through,  share experiences and ultimately imagine a future that had not taken place yet.

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Thinking with time, we can see it as following this pattern: we observe something in the now, we reflect on how what we have seen relates to our knowledge and create scenarios of what might happen in future situations, we then pick the best scenario, we act and after change in the world has occurred, we reflect again on our decision.

2.1 Mental time travel

 Mental time travel comprises the mental reconstruction of personal events from the past and the mental construction of possible events in the future.

– Thomas Suddendorf and Michael Corballis
in Mental time travel and the evolution of the human mind, Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs, 1997

Psychologists use a three part framework to describe the memory tools of our mind: procedural, semantic and episodic memory. Procedural memory (or muscle memory as some call it) is the memory of how to do things. Riding a bike, taking the stairs, tying your laces: once learned, it’s almost impossible to forget. Semantic memory is our memory of facts, about places, names, things. And episodic memory is our memory of stories: it was a warm summer’s day in a small classroom when I learned that Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland, afterwards we went to my friend’s house and had a glass of lemonade. Combined we can use these memory tools not only to retell things that happened in the past but also imagine the future, alternate futures and even different pasts. A bit like the six-up sketch technique for time.

2.2 Temporal construal theory

The greater the temporal distance, the more likely are events to be represented in terms of a few abstract features that convey the perceived essence of the events

– Yaacov Trope and Nira Liberman
in Temporal Construal, Psychological Review 2003

When you ask me to go for a drink tomorrow, I will imagine a rich scene: the table close to the window, the barman in the background, two other visitors in a loud discussion. If, however, you ask me to meet up ten years from now, I will only think beer, London, and have no story-like imagination about it at all.

The way most of us construct time causes us to overestimate the uncertainty of the future, and focus on the now instead. This makes great sense when your main worry is not to be eaten by a tiger, but the abstraction of the future becomes more problematic when you should really make that dentist appointment, that pension payment or that switch to an electric car.  Some psychologists say that our mental ability to deal with time hasn’t really changed since the time of Neanderthals and that the only thing that has helped us dealing with more complex time arrangements are designer environments. So, although we have the ability for mental time travel, to make good use of it we need to build skills in working with the artefacts and concepts of time-thinking.

2.3 Time perspective
This leads me to the last point of psychology: the way we experience time is unique for every one of us depending on personal, social, and cultural differences.

 Time perspective is the often nonconscious personal attitude that each of us holds toward time.

– Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd
in Paradox of Time

John Boyd and Philip Zimbardo spent a lot of time researching the perspectives people have on time and their key finding is that no two people have exactly the same attitude towards time, and that we are mostly not explicitly aware of our own time perspective and that it might differ from others.

They developed a way to measure time perspectives: a system of five independent axes, where scoring high or low on one axe doesn’t necessarily correlate with any of the others.

  • Past positive: focus is on the “good old days”, past successes, nostalgia.
  • Past negative: focus on regret, failure, all the things that went wrong.
  • Present hedonistic: living in the moment for pleasure and avoiding pain, seek novelty and sensation.
  • Present fatalist: stuck in the now but for different reasons, for them there’s no point of making any planning, since they feel that whatever they do will not change the course of their live.
  • Futures: this category is the newest category created through education, upbringing and society. We have to learn to work with the future and for the future.

Bridging the gap between people with different time perspectives or changing one’s own can be challenging. If, for example, we give arguments of why planning is important to people who do not have the future as part of their time perspective they will just ignore our advice as it seems meaningless to them.

Presents may be the invisible men and women of the twenty-first century, whereas futures live and play by the rules of time.

– Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd
in Paradox of Time

Not only their education and upbringing play a role, also culture and environment play their part. It is hard to develop a future orientation when there is no stable environment at present. There is no point in planning ahead when people cannot make reasonable estimates of the future consequences of their actions. Sadly in today’s consumer culture it’s often in a company’s best interest to encourage hedonistic living. Buy now, enjoy now and worry about the consequences later.

The final challenge: a time perspective cannot be optimised, only be balanced. Zimbardo and Boyd state that the healthiest way to live life is high in past positive: cherish the good times and be grateful to those things that have happened to you, medium in present positive: enjoy the now, but not more than you can afford and medium in future positive: remember that you will probably lead a long live on a planet that needs to continue for another few billion years, but don’t let it distract you from being in the now. Once you’ve created a positive feedback loop between scenarios planned, actions taken and reflections made, you can create a more stable now.

Discover your own Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory at

So we can conclude from psychological insights that we have an amazing ability to use our minds to travel time, yet due to personal and social differences some usages are more advantageous than others.

 3. Time in Digital
Now that we explored our rich historic framework of time concepts and artefacts and gained useful insight in the ways our mind works, we can apply this to digital design.

If we remember the cone of uncertainty and various levels of feedback loops, we can create a system that allows us to think further forwards and backwards and gain more grip on life and its events. Every time you start a project where time is going to be a major component ask two questions: first, what is the time frame (from the nearby to the far away)? Second, what is the degree of uncertainty of the events involved? For example, are we quite sure, such as appointments the next day or events in the past, or do we have no clue, like what will happen on January the 25th 2041 or how the iPhone 11 might look.

We can plot these two questions on a time/uncertainty framework that we can use to explore four areas from nearby and low uncertainty to far away and high uncertainty. For each of these areas we can use our  design patterns from the first part and the psychological insights of the second part. And we can slowly see the constraints that might allow us to successfully design for the organisation of time.

Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 21.42.33

3.1 Low uncertainty/nearby
This area is most familiar to us when we think about organising time; it contains the to do lists, agendas,  calendars and sometimes Timelines. If we look at mobile calendars we can see an interesting trend, the iPhone’s default calendar app originally appeared with a grid based month layout but most calendar apps are moving to a timeline view as default instead. Timelines, very useful if you, as the kings of old, want to hide the shakiness of your rule. And of course you can also combine patterns such as cleverly done by Lanyrd, who cover the past, the present and the future in an interesting way. – with an interesting categorisation of today, tomorrow and someday
Partly Cloudy – one of the view workable circular interfaces out there
Calendars: Sunrise, Fantastical, Cal
Timeline: 10.000

3.2 Low uncertainty/faraway
Time tools built with this framing mainly explore time in terms of past events. They can help you reflect and look backwards, as Timehop does, a strange creature that allows you to travel back in the past. As Google Finance shows, when you have a lot of past data some amazing things are possible. However, we can also use the same patterns to start thinking about about the future and come up with some surprising interfaces.

[How might] we make long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare?

– Stewart Brand
Co-founder of The Long Now Foundation
Author of How Buildings Learn

Inspired by this statement from Stewart Brand, I wondered, what if we use the Google finance interface to think about the future? We could also do this for other events in the future: think of pension funds, your health, the predicted climate, or even when you should order things from Amazon or AirBnB wish list.

Timehop – go through your life in reverse speed
Google Finance – it’s almost hard to notice the great design that has been done here

 3.3 High uncertainty/nearby
This is the category of good intentions that you probably won’t live up to. Like going to the gym tomorrow at 6.30. I think it’s also great how it shows you people’s good intentions, on number 9, set priorities for the day.

Everest – plan your life achievements in easy steps
Lift – shares a great top list of most planned goals

 3.4 High uncertainty/far away
In this category planning tools break down and we have to use storytelling or more abstract activities like setting goals or determining visions to work with future time.

There are two ways of approaching this. One way is to bring the future to the now, such as this app for face retirement by Merrill Edge that allows us to lower the uncertainty by bringing the future to the now. The other option is to bring the now into the future by techniques such as design fictions, where we can try to  imagine what it means to live in the future by creating a  set of stories and prototypes and artefacts.

Another example is Bucket lister, a dream catching app that plots your life against the average life expectancy for your gender in your country.

I explored this by making Orbit App a design fiction that allows you to create events that come back at other time-frames than once a year, so that you can develop a feeling for longer stretches of time.

We’ve got an amazing history of time-tool making and some good insights into how people think in and about time, so there’s nothing standing in our way to start making digital tools that help us with years, decades and life-times. The time is now, and I’m excited to see what the next decade will bring.

References, on this talk:
Boon Yew Chew – Sketch-note of the talk
Martin Belam – blog post on the talk

Design with Time in Mind – EuroIA 2013 from Sjors Timmer

Time (in general and in history)
Time – Poetic reflections on the concept of time by Eva Hoffmann
In search of time – good overview of the many ways one can look at time

Time in psychology
Understanding behaviour in the context of time – Insightful collection of papers on the different ways we work with time
Psychology of Time – Collection of papers on the psychology of time
The Time Paradox – book written by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd
Mental Time Travel (txt)
Temporal Construal – pdf

Time in design
The clock of the long now – interesting set of essays by Stewart Brand
The history of time – overview of the development of time tools
Cartographies of time – a visual history of the time-line
All the time in the world – Matt Jones’ presentation on time
Fasti Antiates Maiores – Roman Calendar

*Opening picture: Allegorie op de vergankelijkheid