Design Patterns for the Display of Time

One of the most important constructs we typically deal with in a day is the passage of time. Despite time zone differences and whether we count to 12 twice a day or once to 24, pretty well everyone in the world has the same units of measurement of time. We wakeup at a particular time, we have meetings that start and end at specific times. some of us still watch television shows that are available at certain times, and so on. Many of the activities in our lives are governed by time.  

Given its centrality to our lives, I've found it fascinating to study user interfaces for time and people's uses of them. The study of time UIs is simplified by the realization that they are pretty consistently divided into two primary patterns - analogue and digital.  

Analogue is of course the older of the two and simply represents time with two main "hands" on a space with twelve sections or markers. The shorter of the two hands indicates the hour and the longer of the two the minutes (and a third optionally indicating seconds). A digital display indicates the time by showing a number of hours to the left of a colon and the number of minutes to the right of it. I provide a detailed explanation of how each works here because some of you reading this, similar to the topic I dealt with in my last post, haven't had much experience particularly reading the first of these.    

I've used a combination of these two time user interface patterns over the years and still do. The above display on the left is the clock I used on my MacBook Pro desktop and the one on the right is the Nike+ Fuelband I've recently been wearing on my wrist.

I wanted to get a sense of which of these design patterns are used most frequently among my friends and followers so asked on Facebook and Twitter, "What do you typically use to check the time and is it digital or analogue? " The results showed that about 73 percent use digital most frequently and most of those virtually exclusively often on their smartphone. Those who mentioned that they used a combination typically described which clocks in houses or places of work happened to be one or the other design pattern but a very small number (1.0 percent) also made reference to a differential preference based on task or objective. I didn't explicitly add the question of why in the initial request so more people may also take this perspective than the few who made reference to it would suggest.  

I, like the minority of respondents, have always been of the view that these two design patterns solve different problems and shouldn't be used interchangeably. Let me be more clear, they can be used interchangeably but not optimally. Each has a strength that the other doesn't. I use a digital display when I want to be precise and accurate while I use an analogue display when I want to get a general sense of how much time has passed or, mostly importantly, how much time is left within the hour. The latter requires the clock to be persistently visible whereas the former can be displayed on the press of a button which is the arrangement I have with the clock on my computer desktop persistently visible whereas a press of a button on the Fuelband or the iPhone is required to display the time digitally. I find that the analogue display of time is like a temporal data visualization whereas the digital display is a numeric metric. My actual preference as a user is to have a toggle available on any time between an analogue and a digital display.      

I've been reflecting on my last blog post about the trend in handwriting usage and how the trend in the display of time is similar in some respects and dissimilar in others. The overall trend toward all things digital due to the increasing pervasiveness of technology in our lives underlies both of these observations. Similarly, the result, due to the technology dictating the experience rather than the humans, impacts both of these. In the case of the display of time, the technology is entirely capable of rendering either of these design patterns for time. However, the digital pattern appears to be the one most often used and it appears as well largely due to its pervasiveness that many people now appear to prefer it as well. Is this another instance of HCI having failed users? Please use the social networks to discuss this further in response to my posts there as I'm no longer accepting comments on this blog (see my previous post as to why). Thanks.