“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know. If I wish to explain it to one that asks, I don’t know.”  – St. Augustine wrote in Confessions.


Research motivation

In Outlook Design Studio, we strive to create products and services that help people better manage their time. To come up with innovative ideas around calendars, we decided to take a step back, rethink about what “time” is and identify unmet needs around it.

Questions I tried to answer include: What is time?  What are the unmet needs and opportunities related to time usage? What else can we do to obtain people’s time to use our products when there are already numerous time-related apps in the market?

Methods & Research participants

To tap into this topic that seems so familiar and yet so vague, as a start, I conducted in-depth interviews and contextual inquiries with 16 people. I specifically looked for extreme users – people who have all the time in the world, such as retired citizens, as well as people with limited time, such as a single mom with kids and part-time jobs.

Part-time assistant golf coach

22 Male

Retired citizen

70 Female

Single mom with a 3-year-old son with ADHD

28 Female

Visual Designer

28 Male

Small business owner

39 Male

Stay-at-home dad with 4 children

36 Male

Self-employed tutor with dyslexia

45 Female

UX designer

27 Female

Stay-at-home mom with 6 children

45 Female

Single Uber driver

49 Male

Software Engineer

26 Male

Student

24 Female

Business Manager

36 Male

Student and contractor at tech company

21 Female

Design Researcher

31 Female

Small business owner

27 Female

The people I talked to in this research

Findings

I categorized the findings into two types:

A. General time perceptions

B. Needs for time management tools (calendars, reminders, to-do list, etc.)

 

A. General time perceptions

General time perceptions can be divided into lifetime level, daily level, and personal level.

1. Lifetime Level

Overarching goal: spending time in a meaningful way

Despite age and occupation, people’s overarching goal is to be “productive”. Being productive here does not necessarily mean getting more done. Instead, it means to spend time on things that are meaningful to them. Having free time, yet having nothing useful, fun, or meaningful to fill it with, is often unenjoyable.

“I wish there is something that generates things for me to do. I want to use ‘loose end time’ to be more productive.” – Part-time assistant golf coach

Life stages affect the way people use their time 

People tend to use their time wiser when they are paying attention to time, and when they have more responsibilities such as work and family. At the early stage of one’s life, time seems to go slower, and a year can feel like forever. As a result, one is more likely to use the time inefficiently and ineffectively.

“I have never thought about time when I was young. 25 years old felt like forever. But now time is more important and I think about it more.” – Stay home dad with 4 children

On the other hand, at the late stage of life, people face different time-related challenges: What should I do when I am released from most of the responsibilities? How can I better use time when it is limited by health conditions?

A participant and her medication box that reminds her of time.

 

Future is motivating but overwhelming

In North America, where most of our participants are from, people acknowledge that the past provides good lessons to learn from, but they don’t usually look back and reflect. The future is a big motivator, but they feel overwhelmed when thinking about it. The main reason is that they don’t know how to break their goals down into actionable steps.

 

2. Daily Level

At the daily level, there are generally three categories of time people perceive – valued time, wasted time, and “not my time”. Time spent on any activity can fall under multiple categories, depending on what people do and how they think about it. For example, spending time browsing Facebook can be both valued (if doing so for 30 min after work to unwind) and wasted (if doing so for 2 hours unintentionally).

Doing household chores, for example, is a typical activity that people considered “not my time”. However, if they don’t do it, other time could be negatively affected.

 

3. Personal Level

With 12 total participants, I saw a possible segmentation axis – the level of concern people have with time. I purposed that we could segment participants into three types accordingly:

 

 

The majority of information workers tend to fall into the first two types. They are more time-conscious and for them, there is a stronger association between time and stressed.

“I look at the time a lot. I pull out my phone and check the time even when the time itself doesn’t register. I just do it often.” – Business Manager

 

B. Needs for time management tools

Compare to consumers, information workers rely more heavily on digital tools to manage their time. However, these tools are not adequate for relieving time-induced stress or preventing procrastination.

In addition, almost all participants reported that there are still several needs that are not satisfied by existing tools. Amongst the most commonly mentioned points were:

1. Having a reminding system that is trust-worthy and manifests differently based on the priority

Today, people are using alternative methods or workarounds to remind themselves of events that are important. They are not confident enough to solely rely on calendar reminders as they don’t stand out enough from other notifications, thus are too easy to overlook or dismiss.

Left: A participant texted herself to remind her a lunch appointment. Right: A participant uses 4 days of separate events leading up to that event to remind himself each day. He also sets an alarm that will go off two hours before the event. 

 

2. Having a comprehensive view of tasks across multiple sources

People naturally use different tools to manage time and events depending on how they mentally categorize and weigh them. However, this means that every day they have to visit multiple places to figure out what their day looks like, and to make sure that they don’t miss anything. Therefore, they wish to be able to “see everything I need to do today at a glance”.

“I probably spend too much time making sure things go to the whiteboard calendar, and things on different calendars do not conflict.” – Stay-at-home mom with 6 children

3. Having a streamlined process of inputting and accessing events

People, especially consumers, reported that time management tools take up their time instead of saving them time. There needs to be an easier way to jog things down in digital tools. This is a basic requirement and has appeared in many other research reports.

“It’s too much work to put those events into my phone. It seems useless and too time intensive.” – Single mom with a 3-year-old son with ADHD

 

Opportunities

I synthesized the findings and came up with some design opportunities:

  • How can we support a smoother transition between life stages and make people consider the value of time earlier in life? How can we make people consider the value of time earlier in life?
  • How can we help reduce the anxiety that occurs when thinking about the future, and break plans and goals down into achievable steps?
  • How can we help people complete tasks they dislike, so that they have more time to do what they want?
  • How can we help people increase their productivity without creating more time-induced stress?
  • How can we improve time management tools so that they bring convenience to people instead of taking up their time? How can we reduce the mental burden of creating calendar events?
  • How can we support the wish of “seeing everything I need to do today at a glance” while still respecting that “one place for all” doesn’t necessarily match people’s mentalities?
  • How can we provide varying levels of manifestation for events that weigh differently for people, and remind them differently? How can we increase the confidence in digital notifications?

 

Outcome

Some designers on the team turned the initial findings into design concepts. The emoji calendar was one of the ideas. We learned from the research that calendaring essentially rests on two touchstones – input and recall – and visual lexicons directly map to how our brains best store and recall information.

 

Next Steps

One thing I learned throughout the process was that extreme user interviews are good for gathering scenarios and inspirations, but not necessarily useful for getting “perspectives”. I met users who were struggling with time, but not all of them have solid opinions on time. Therefore, I went ahead and conducted a research with expert users – time coaches, life coaches, and their clients.

Post research, the team documented what we learned in an internal interview format, so that we can socialize the findings with other teams and orgs in a more casual approach. (On top of the report).