Designing Time

I recently wrote about how I’ve become much better at designing my own time. Recognizing the infinite options with which to spend it, having a clearer sense of what makes me happy and fulfilled has allowed me to make the right choices to meet my greater goals.

This skill is not only crucial as it applies to ourselves, but to others. As creators of products and services, we essentially design other people’s time. Our design decisions effect how long it takes them to find a page, read a passage, complete a form, or change a setting. Real-life time spent by real-life people that we fully control.

Sometimes we keep them longer, sometimes we get them out sooner, sometimes it’s on purpose and sometimes by accident. If we’re honest with ourselves, most of the time we didn’t consider their time at all. Yet as an industry we have the tools and the access to shape it, and in many cases they don’t have a choice but to follow the path we’ve laid out for them. It’s uncanny when you take the time to ponder it.

I’ve never heard someone speak about this phenomena in human history with as much insight and eloquence as Paul Ford. If you don’t know his work, I recommend you set aside a weekend (or three) to read through his impressive anthology on, which dates back to 1997 (okay, maybe seven weekends).

Paul teaches content strategy in the beloved MFA in Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and gave the closing keynote at their graduation ceremony in May. I showed up to the festivities just in time to hear him speak, and midway through I was so swept up in his words that I needed the wall to hold me up.

Lucky for you, the full text of his speech, titled 10 Timeframes, has been published by Contents Magazine. I urge you to take 10 minutes out of your day to read it from start to finish, and then start again and read it once more. Like most genius, it takes a few times hearing it before it fully sinks in.

Come back when you’re ready.

I wanted to pull out a passage towards the end that hit me dead. It has helped me to think about designing time as a practical application of empathy.

When I look out at this room I see a comparatively small number of faces but I also see a trillion heartbeats. Not your own heartbeats, but those of your users. The things that you build in the next decade are going to cost people, likely millions of people, maybe a billion people depending on the networks where you hitch your respective wagons, they are going to cost a lot of people a lot of time. Trillions of heartbeats spent in interaction.

The time you spend is not your own. You are, as a class of human beings, responsible for more pure raw time, broken into more units, than almost anyone else. You spent two years learning, focusing, exploring, but that was your time; now you are about to spend whole decades, whole centuries, of cumulative moments, of other people’s time. People using your systems, playing with your toys, fiddling with your abstractions. And I want you to ask yourself when you make things, when you prototype interactions, am I thinking about my own clock, or the user’s? Am I going to help someone make order in his or her life, or am I going to send that person to a commune in Vermont?

There is an immense opportunity—maybe it’s even a business opportunity—to look at our temporal world and think about calendars and clocks and human behavior, to think about each interaction as a specific unit, to take careful note of how we parcel out moments. Whether a mouse moving across a screen or the progress of a Facebook post through a thousand different servers, the way we value time seems to have altered, as if the earth tilted on its axis, as if the seasons are different and new.
So that is my question for all of you: What is the new calendar? What are the new seasons? The new weeks and months and decades? As a class of individuals, we make the schedule. What can we do to help others understand it?

If we are going to ask people, in the form of our products, in the form of the things we make, to spend their heartbeats—if we are going to ask them to spend their heartbeats on us, on our ideas, how can we be sure, far more sure than we are now, that they spend those heartbeats wisely?

Trillions of heartbeats spent in interaction. The time you spend is not your own. Am I thinking about my own clock, or the user’s? As a class of individuals, we make the schedule. If we are going to ask people to spend their heartbeats on us, how can we be sure that they spend those heartbeats wisely?

I am haunted by these questions and yearn for a way to simulate time. I wonder what devices we can use and what exercises we can conduct to instill one person’s experience of time into another person’s soul. The measurement of time is not enough. My one minute is different than your one minute, even if I spend it pretending to do what you need to do. Because that pretending shapes my consciousness and alters my experience. I can never feel your time like you feel it, and you can never feel mine.

Does that mean that empathy has its boundaries? If we can’t feel what they feel, are we worthy of controlling the order of their moments? How can we ever ensure that we do justice to the people we serve?

We guide their decisions. We present their information. We provide their pleasure. But we take so much from them in return. To be wrong is to squander their time, to waste a part of their life, sometimes small, sometimes not so small. We can’t predict. We can’t ever truly know. But I want to know. I want to be closer to sure. With great power comes great responsibility. I want to deserve it. Teach me how.

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