Designing in Timescales

There is ongoing discussion in the design industry about what, exactly, is the difference between “UX” and “Interaction design” and all the other related sub-disciplines.


A while back, I read a simple answer by Ed Everett on LinkedIn that described the difference in terms of timescale. I thought the idea was worth sharing with all the UX Kids out there.

(Ed’s answer is no longer available because LinkedIn is awesome like that.)


You can think of a “timescale” as the amount of time you’re considering at once.

If you’re deciding whether you can cross the street before that car kills you, you’re thinking short-term: seconds (or less).

If you’re deciding whether you have time to binge-watch Game of Thrones this weekend, that’s medium-term: minutes, hours, days.

And if you’re deciding whether you want to work at McDonald’s or Burger King after you get your music degree, that’s long-term: years.

(disclosure: I basically minored in music in university… ;)

Thinking in seconds, days, or years will give you dramatically different perspectives. New perspectives bring new priorities.

And they can all be valuable.


Long-term design

In the broadest sense, “UX” can apply to a new user and a loyal, experienced user equally. Some companies focus too much on the beginners, because they are the majority of users (yes, always). And some companies focus too much on the experienced power users because they are so much more interesting to design for (and they think they know what they want).

When you’re designing for the “long term” you should think of it as a process, not a fixed time or place.

Experienced users were once beginners. A designer’s job is to get as many users from the “beginner” phase to the “expert” phase as possible. Motivate them. Teach them. Let them customize. Add power when they need it, and remove complexity when they don’t.

Long-term design also includes scale and uncertainty. How will your design work when you have 10 millions users? Can users serve themselves, or do they need sales people and customer services reps? Does it become hard to navigate when you have a million pages of content?

The term “UX” is really the only word in our field that applies to long-term design. This could be months or years. It would live beside visual design terms like identity andconceptual design terms like branding.


Medium-term Design

When you think in terms of minutes or hours, you should be thinking about getting users to visit more, spend more time per visit, and how to improve the quality of each visit.

This is where loyalty is built.

I would say that terms like “information architecture” and “user psychology” apply most on a scale of minutes and hours. Maybe even days or weeks for something like social media.

Users will learn a “mental map” of your design over the first few visits, and they will start to expect certain things in certain places. They will get a “sense” of your menu categories and where to find everything.

Many users will “drop off” at this timescale if they don’t find something they want to do 100 times. Or 1000 times. Many products die a horrible death on a medium timescale, because the problem they solve only happens once and a while.


Short-Term Design

This is where most of us live on a daily basis. On the scale of milliseconds or seconds, we’re thinking about each label of a form, or the colour of a specific button, or conversion on the first visit.

Humans are short-term thinkers. On one hand, that makes it imporant that a user’s first experience is good. On the other hand, it means most designers forget to add long-term value to their solutions.

When we talk about “interaction design” or “delight” or “conversion” this is what we’re talking about.

Dan Saffer even talks about microinteractions; each momentary experience.


All of these timescales have a significant effect on your designs. Long-term design will make-or-break a company. Short- and medium-term design will make-or-break an individual user’s first visit.

The best designs — and the best designers — are effective on all timescales.