Designing time to think

I was busy with production work last week, and in the background I listened to the Google TechTalk by David Levy, “No time to think.” In spite of the title (and my partial attention), it really got me thinking. Levy suggests that we are in an information environmental crisis, that we need silence and sanctuary for creative reflection and engagement. He explains that Nobel Laureate Barbara McKlintock was able to see further and deeper into genetics than anyone had before because she took the time to look and to hear what the material had to say to her. At Harvard, students asked her “where does one get the time to look and think?” They argued that the pace of current research seems to preclude such a contemplative stance.

This is a pressure we can all relate to. I struggle to find the time to think deep thoughts. Every time I try, I interrupt myself to check my email or text messages, or track the latest news headlines. Randall Munroe over at seems to have the same problem. It seems that my attention span is inversely proportional to the number of “productivity” tools and toys I have. As much as I love it, my iPhone has been the worst thing I could have done for my ability to focus.

Attention span v.s. productivity tools and toys

These days we rarely focus clearly on one thing at a time, multi-tasking from the moment we read the paper on the bus with headphones and coffee en route to work, until we get home and check email in front of the TV while eating dinner. We are constantly interacting with technology devices and information.

Vannevar Bush’s 1945 article, As We May Think, expressed the hope that more powerful tools will automate the routine aspects of information processing, and would thereby leave researchers and other professionals more time for creative thought. But as Levy points out, more than sixty years later, it seems clear that the opposite has happened, that the use of the new technologies has contributed to an accelerated mode of working and living that leaves us less time to think, not more. Levy asks where in our culture we are making time to think, since thinking takes time.

At the end of the talk an interesting comment came from fellow who observed that, in contrast to Sweden, San Francisco has very few public benches where one can just sit down and observe what is. One has to keep moving, and according to the laws if you stay in one place too long, you may be considered to be “loitering.” In our culture, there are few opportunities to be calm and sit down in a public space, unless one is consuming something at a coffee shop or a café. This is something that has been built into the culture and the architecture. We need to rediscover the places that will encourage this kind of thinking and reflection – not only in our physical but also in our digital spaces. Creative thought can’t be rushed, but it can be nurtured.

So how can we nurture creative thought?

Much of the work we do at Cooper involves designing tools to increase productivity and efficiency; to help people to do more, faster, and keep them moving. But are we in danger of making things too fast and efficient, preventing people from spending enough time with the information they need to consider carefully? There are things that computers are really good at — memory work and calculations, for example. There are also things that they are really bad at — cognitive work, subjective decisions and judgment calls. The latter should be left to people, and as designers we need to ensure they have the right information, as well as the time, to come to a thoughtful decision or judgment.

For example, when designing software for tax professionals, we should ensure that the preparer is enabled to spend most of their time interpreting tax laws, rather than filling in line items one by one. Make the easy stuff easy — let computers do what computers are good at — and allow preparers to focus on what they are good at, and what they actually enjoy about their jobs.

Designing with time

We use scenarios to tell stories of ideal experiences for our users. Any storyteller will tell you that timing is an important part of telling a good story and as designers we need to think carefully about time as a design element — it’s just as important as color, type and layout. Dan Boyarski has been thinking about time as a design element for many years. He has been teaching his students to use time for emphasis, clarity or to create new meaning. You can see some examples of the work from his classes here.

Most of these pieces are experimental and entertaining, based on poetry or film dialogs, but the principles at work can be applied to designing enterprise software too. Rather than just making everything faster and more efficient, we need to think about how to get people to focus on the important stuff, without letting minor tasks and busy-work get in the way. We need to design environments where people have the time and space to focus on important decisions. One way to do this is through progressive disclosure; only revealing information when it’s relevant to the decision at hand. Other ways to achieve this would involve presenting information in the right sequence, or placing related information in close proximity to help people to see the big picture. All of this is in service of nurturing the balance between ratio (searching and re-searching, abstracting refining and concluding) and intellectus (thinking; reflection; assimilation and contemplation) — which is Levy’s concluding slide of the talk.

Bench with a view
Photo from Flickr by timparkinson.

It’s really important to take the time to look and to think. Let’s think about how we can design metaphorical benches in our products to encourage people to stop and reflect where necessary.

Emma van Niekerk

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