Photo courtesy of Sonja Langford at Unsplash

The UX of Waiting and the Perception of Time

This is the beginning and the introduction of a series of articles on time and perception in human-computer interaction — a topic I have spent over a year researching. I am very grateful to Steven Seow, PhD, whose research far exceeds mine and has been instrumental in informing my efforts. I highly recommend his book, Designing and Engineering Time: The Psychology of Time Perception in Software.

These articles directly support a topic I am speaking on this year at the IA Summit 2018. The presentation is titled: Don’t Make Me Wait! User Perception of Time & Software Speed.

We had something of an issue with our software at one of my previous positions. It was perceived as being slow — though not necessarily slow given what it accomplishes for the end-user. However, it was slow in comparison to our competitors — making it a game-changer for selection or adoption in some respects. There were other issues keeping us from being widely adopted and I documented them in another article I published. But the speed issue related to a human factors issue in clinics where the response time of software was an important factor.

I was working for a hearing instrument company — GN ReSound. And, there was an interesting scenario I observed as I visited clinics. Atypically, hearing instrument users are older — much older. And, some of them tend to be lonely or…let’s just say, they have a little more time than the rest of us. I recognize this is a generalization. But, generally, our audience was older and had more time on their hands than other segments of users in different age groups. And, our largest segment was senior citizens. So, the issue was: Audiologists who fit and service hearing aids have a pretty tight schedule — not too dissimilar from physcians in hospitals and healthcare centers. The last thing they want is to have a patient in their clinic where there are a lot of silent moments because this encourages long conversation and conversation throws off the audiologist’s schedule as well as the next patient and the next patient after that. Slow software offered this opportunity for silent moments and long conversations. In short, the audiologists wanted fast and responsive software so they could get patients in and out as quickly as possible. This is what started me on my journey into the speed of software.

There are different elements of speed to consider in software — the actual measured speed, the perception of speed and the tolerance of speed. Thus, there are three things you can essentially change in relation to speed. First, you can speed up the software or the process. This is the actual measured speed in seconds or minutes. (But, you may not be able to do anything about the speed of your software or the speed of whatever it is you are creating.) The second thing you can change is the perception of speed. And the third element is the user’s tolerance for the speed of a product or process.

I needed to figure out if there was a way to change the perception of speed (not the actual speed) through interface design. In short: Is there a way to make the amount of time seem less than what it truly was? Or, was there a way to change the tolerance level of the user. The short answer was yes. But, getting there was a longer journey.

In the process of compiling research and putting together a presentation on this topic, I looked at time perception and tolerance in areas other than computer and digital interfaces. A colleague told me of some research he had come across in the past concerning elevators and how the floor indicator display was created as a method of feedback whilst people waited. Neither of us could find that research again. However, in the process of attempting to locate a source for that, I came across a number of stories concerning elevators and how to manage the inevitable wait times that occur as a result of using this technology.

One such story comes from Signal vs. Noise and details a New York office building where the occupants were complaining of the excessive wait times for the elevator. The age of the building along with other factors prevented anything from being improved mechanically. Occupants were threatening to break the terms of their leases as a result of the long elevator times and management convened a meeting to seek a solution. One member of the meeting was a psychologist who was perplexed that the tenants should be so upset over what was truly a minute or two of wait time. He concluded boredom was more likely the source than the actual length of the wait time.

“…he took the problem to be one of giving those waiting something to occupy their time pleasantly. He suggested installing mirrors in the elevator boarding areas so that those waiting could look at each other or themselves without appearing to do so. The manager took up his suggestion. The installation of mirrors was made quickly and at a relatively low cost. The complaints about waiting stopped.”

Today, it is quite common to see mirrors in lobbies where elevators are located.

The point to take away from this is that waiting time is different from time occupied. This is something so simple, we rarely ever think about it. But, we are often given diversions during wait times to transform the wait into occupied time. An even larger point here relates to the difference between the actual speed and the perceived speed of a given occurrence. The elevators were probably slow by comparison to other elevators. But, it was the perception of speed (or slowness) that was intolerable. If this were not the case, the simple addition of mirrors by the elevators would have made no difference at all.

Thus, change the perception and the problem of slowness vanishes. Perception is malleable whereas the actual speed of an elevator, a software program or a process is not always in our control. A case in point is my next story.

A few years ago, I surprised my wife by taking her to see the Judge Mathis Show here in Chicago. We waited in the lobby cafe for 15–20 minutes so we could get in line and wait again to pass through security. Once we passed through security, we were herded into a waiting room that felt more like a detention center than a TV studio waiting area. We waiting there for nearly an hour and were finally herded once again onto the set. All of this time amounted to a couple of hours (we later found out the Judge’s plane had been delayed). As we were seated on the set to represent the audience, Doyle (the bailiff on the show) came running out and launched into a series of jokes — an improvised or rehearsed comedy routine, we couldn’t tell. The time flew from the second he came out. And he was actually quite funny. The point is: Doyle succeeded in transforming our wait time into occupied time, which, in turn, made the time fly by. This is the same type of diversion as the mirrors in the elevator. The perception of time while waiting in the “detention center” was much different than that of being entertained by Doyle. The latter was not a wait at all…or at least we did not perceive it as a wait.

Perception vs. Tolerance — In the examples above, we are shaping perception. Tolerance and perception are two different concepts. We shape perception when there is something about the system or the process we can change to make the perception of the duration shorter. Diverting our attention, for example, disguises the amount of time spent waiting. But, there may be instances in which we cannot disguise the duration of time. And, this is when we must attempt to increase the tolerance of the user. We can increase the tolerance through comedy by making the user laugh. We can increase the tolerance by underscoring the value of a process (i.e. it’s worth the wait). There are a number of methods. But for the time being, it is important to distinguish between shaping perception and managing tolerance. I’ll devote future articles to both of these topics.

To underscore just how a user experience can be shaped in terms of time, let’s consider the fitting software for hearing instruments I was designing features for when I began this research. Via Bluetooth, the software can connect to a user’s hearing instruments and adjust the settings without the user having to remove them. We refer to this as “wireless fitting.” If the audiologist does not fit this way, they must have the user remove the instruments, hook up wires to them and connect to the computer. This is not ideal and takes some time. Some of our competitors had developed wireless solutions where the audiologist had the user wear elaborate receiving and transmitting devices. All of these solutions — to include the wireless solution we offered, Airlink — take time. However, we received the most complaints from dispensers concerning Airlink. Essentially, the patient sat down, the audiologist opened the software, clicked a button to connect and watched a green spinning circle search for the hearing instruments. This seemed to take forever for them. The reason was that in that situation, the audiologist was waiting. In the other situations, they were hooking up wires and doing this and that with the patient. That was occupied time. Two very different things.

A solution would have been to turn the waiting time into productive time. But, that is the subject of a future article.

The big points to take away here are:

  • Wait time is different from occupied time. Think about the last time you became immersed in an app on your phone and didn’t realize you had waited over an hour for your car repair or doctor’s appointment.
  • Change the perception and time no longer drags on. We can do this through changes to the interface, improved progress bars and accurately reporting time in a system among other techniques.
  • There is a clear distinction to be made between shaping perception and managing tolerance. The latter does not attempt to disguise the duration of time while the former does.
  • Ultimately, time is subjective and we humans are not very good at estimating time lapse on recall.

This means we have the ability to shape perception and manage tolerance within system interfaces in situations where humans interact with technology and in nearly any situation where our users are subjected to a delay or wait. I’ll discuss both the importance of this along with specific techniques in future posts in this series.

In the next post, I’ll discuss 7 rules for managing users’ wait time. In that article we will look at the research, tie it together as a means of understanding human psychology and discuss how to manage the simple act of waiting.

Further Resources:

Designing & Engineering Time by Steven C. Seow, PhD

Designing with the Mind in Mind by Jeff Johnson



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Chris Kiess

Chris Kiess

Healthcare User Experience Designer in the Greater Chicago area