When Things Go

One thing I’ve noticed many stakeholders struggle with when reviewing interactive design is the concept of timing. By timing I mean the time it takes for a user to process and interact with something. It refers to the fact that there’s an experience timeline—a sequence of moments—and that over the course of this timeline the user’s goals and motivations may change.

There’s a good reason thinking about timing doesn’t come naturally: design reviews are usually conducted with static comps—flat, frozen-in-time snapshots of a UI.

So instead of parsing a comp into components and laying those components out on a mental timeline, the design is evaluated as a whole. And as a result, discussion about the design obsesses over where everything goes, usually relative to a Y-axis in which the important stuff goes at the top and the crap stuff goes at the bottom.

What gets passed over is the appreciation for when things go, or rather, when things are important.

For a simple example of how this relates to design, say you’re working on a news site and designing an article page. Nudging the user to share the article may be a top priority. But they’re probably going to want to read the thing first. So putting the share tools at the very top of the page may not make a lot of sense.

Joshua Porter covered this ground a few years ago in his post, “Why you should bury your sign up button. A similar logic applies to any case where we want a user to take some next-step action, whether that action is clicking on ad, signing-up for something, or leaving a comment.

When web sites get this wrong it creates friction and feels awkward, like when you arrive on a page and are immediately hit with a pop-up asking you to take a survey about your experience on the site.

Back to the original problem, if you’re reviewing a user flow or a set of small single-purpose screens, it’s less likely to be an issue, as the timeline of events is explicit. In other cases, like editorial design where it’s common to have long pages with lots of competing calls to action, it’s easy to forget the role of timing.

One trick is to break larger designs up into sequences of segments. A long homepage, for example, could be divided into three parts (Khoi Vinh calls these horizontal divisions “fields” in his book, Ordering Disorder): the first containing introductory elements (Attention), the second a proposition (Interest, Decision), and the third potential actions (Action).

If you currently have a two-step process that goes something like (1) What will go on the page? (2) Where will things go?, timing becomes a middle step that informs the where question. So the process becomes: (1) What will go on the page? (2) When are these things important? (3) Where will they go?

For some designers this comes naturally. For some and for non-designers it’s likely to require some emphasis. So the next time you’re reviewing a design, take the opportunity to highlight the importance of timing. It’ll help your stakeholders get a better take on the user’s perspective—and it’ll help them understand your work.