Designing and Engineering Time: The Psychology of Time Perception in Software

Reviewed on , book by Steven C. Seow

Came looking for research on how users of computers perceive time. Got some of that, could’ve gotten more, could’ve gotten less. Overall, satisfied, but not raving about it. Alright, what did I learn?

Of course, time is extremely subjective. Two people at a restaurant may have gotten the exact same service, at the exact same time, and had wildly different experiences—just based on their mental state. People tend to overestimate waiting times by 25%. That’s a lot. People also tend to be less pissed about time if you tell them why things take time. E.g. sitting in an airplane waiting sucks. Sitting in an airplane waiting after your captain told you they’re doing a repair that’d cause the jet to otherwise have an increased probability of abruptly gravitating towards the ground—now I’m patient!

Something I found useful is that something has to become about 20% slower for humans detect it. E.g. you load a page, then load it again, if it’s less than 20% slower we’re unlikely to detect it. If you compare two things side-by-side, then you’re looking at the geometric mean between the two timings as what’s making sense. That seems almost too orderly… but ok, I’ll believe you dr. Seow.

Alright, what else. If something takes more than 5 seconds, people get impatient and will assume your thing is broken unless you show some loading indicator. Alright. Oh! He introduced me to the Barnabus Effect. You know how when you walk somewhere new it always feels like going there takes longer than going back? Well, you’re not alone—the heightened attention in a new area makes our time perception slow down.