Designing for different timescales


While working on the design mocks of some ideas, I've been thinking about how tools / products can function on different temporal scales.

While in the present Spotify is just a tool for listening to the music that suits your current mood, at the end of every year it prompts you with an overview of "This year in Music". What was a music provider service in the present, scaled to a yearly rhythm became a self-reflection app, navigating on the data you had unconsciously generated. The same way social networks are communication and self-advertisement tools (as well as quick sources of dopamine) in the present, but they become personal archives over time. Telling your friends that you're lonely by posting that song at 11:21 PM also shares it with your future self.

I've started consciously searching for this view and forcing myself to change how I perceive time while designing a product. When you see yesterday and tomorrow as now, you naturally pay more attention to the details. Usually, the feature that sparks the idea of a tool is a feature of the present. Writing this down makes me realize that I must open my eyes. How do the tool and the user interact? Through which interface do they experience each other's presence? All these first questions that arise are about interactions in the present. What will they see? Where do I want them to click? Where will they click? We could start stretching out these thoughts to longer rhythms by asking ourselves the same questions and moving our attention back and forth in time. What did they see (just now, an hour ago)? What are their current inputs when looking back to them from the future? What does a click on that button mean tomorrow, in 6 months or in a year? Who is the user now; who will they become? Will they think back on these memories when they feel lonely? What could I do to ensure that this echo returns to them when the time has come?

Take a writing app. They have hundreds of notes lying around, ideas, feelings, status updates; the writing app was used as a tool to develop their thoughts. The memory of these notes is their only reference to them, and this slowly fades away. They will never pop up some day in the app to be re-read, to be reminded of or to trigger an internal confrontation of who they used to be. The app left them missed out on these random reminders and therefore missed out on the old thoughts: manifestations of their internal changes.

A few days after hitting the checkout button in your order, you get an email to rate the product. It's a chair for your home-office. You spent the Friday morning sitting on it, but you've stopped working early that day. No impressions so far. You give three stars... Getting one of these emails after a year could have helped to think about your whole experience with the product in that past year. You sit on the chair every day, it became almost invisible. It's like it's always been there. Did you really buy it only one year ago? There's so much more you could tell them now. Only if they asked.

An email in my dreams: the online store I've bought a chair from is asking for my feedback after a year of usage.

Another example of this scaling of time are "convergence apps". Drawing a line every day on a canvas becomes an abstract painting in a year. Randomly mix recordings of your environment within a season and you'll have your own ambient version of Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons". The convergence of many small inputs to a new, bigger whole is a medium of its own. Another play on time.

Le Monte Young, one of the first minimalist musicians, stated once that "Time is my medium", referring to the monotonic motions of his music. Time is a medium of products too and we have to design on it. Even without the different scales and rhythms, time can be the canvas to make subtle impressions on the user and on their connection to the product. Waiting... as a feature. Silence and void could be built into apps as integral features next to the like and follow buttons. Online shops with opening hours and with products that naturally change with the seasons.

A webshop in my dreams: "You cannot buy this product today, come back on Monday"

What's left to find is a balance between the present and the future. When is the right moment in the timeline of a product to start building these long-term features? How can we make sure that the present stays more important than the plans for a future we can only hope to come?

Does that sound familiar?