Temporal Design Thinking: Visualizing Design In Time


NOTE: I use the term “actor” in this article in place of the more common terms “user,“ “audience,” and “customer”.

As noted by Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Time is an illusion… lunchtime doubly so.” We like to think of time as a constant — the seconds ticking away the same for me as they do for you — but time is really just a shared contract, interpreted differently from person to person and even culture to culture. According to Einstein, time literally depends on your personal frame of reference.

In experience interface design, time is relative, where the actor can drive as quickly or as slowly through the interface as the desire. And yet we design as if one speed and one path fits all.

Temporal design thinking expands on the traditional tenets of design thinking by adding a fourth consideration:

4. Follow the rhythm of actors and how their needs and goals change both in context and over time.

The problem with just creating Visual & Interactive design

Although the technology we use to display information has radically changed in the last 50 years — give or take a decade — from fixed dark pigments on pressed wood pulp, to dynamic pixels of light on glass screens, our methods for thinking how the information should be displayed has shifted surprisingly little. We still think very much in a “page” metaphor, as if each block of text were still contained within a discreet rectangular area.Design thinking, when applied to interface design, must add the third consideration of how it works in and over time, or we not only do a disservice to people interacting with these systems, we riskI was discussing the need for talking about timing while doing UI design critiques with Steve Krug, and he wrote to me:

We’re thinking, “great literature” (or at least “product brochure”), while the user’s reality is much closer to “billboard going by at 60 miles an hour”. — Steve Krug

Linear Design Thinking
Linear Design Thinking

Yet designers seemingly think very little about how their product will work at variable speeds.

It’s incredibly hard for UI designers to realize just how quickly people are zooming through — or past — the interface they’ve worked so hard to develop, and how little of it they actually take in. — Steve Krug

Interface design today is often the equivalent of the 1965 Chevrolet Corvair: unsafe at any speed. That’s no laughing matter. Our increasing reliance on computer mediated communication channels means that misunderstandings or items missed can lead to tragedy.

Temporal Design Thinking
Temporal Design Thinking

The Five levels of Temporal Design Vision

Here are the five layers of temporal design thinking for experience design.

Temporal Visualization
Temporal Visualization

01. Keep context

Temporal experience design respects the actor’s context in time. Your design should proved messaging that change depending on the time of day and, potentially even the visual and interactive design based patterns in use through the course of a day.

02. Give a narrative

Temporal experience design reveals its own self-consistent story to the actor. Digital interfaces should not feel like discreet chunks lumped together, but need to provide an overarching context as well as the specific context. This can also mean the actors place within the interface or within a specific process.

03. Provide agency

Temporal experience design empowers the actor to find their own path through their own self-determined actions. This is key to turning someone from an interface user into an interface actor – giving them maximum control over the environment. This attribute has the furthest to go for temporal design. Currently, we treat digital interface as at best a ‘Choose Your Own adventure’ with two or three options. In the future, interfaces will need to live more like open environments than a two lane high-way.

04. Show transitions

Temporal experience design moves smoothly but clearly from one moment to the next, preventing change blindness. As elements change, actors can clearly see those changes over time, rather than sudden or jumpy changes.

05. Make it adapt

Temporal experience design has a natural flow that unfolds around the actor as they move through it. As new information becomes available, the actor should feel as if it is increasingly pertinent to what they have already experienced, not unlike putting together clues in a murder mystery building on and adding to the previous experienced contexts.

Does your team need design thinking training? We offer workshops for that.

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