RE: Deadline Pressure Distorts Our Sense of Time

Article:  Herbert, W. (2011). “Deadline Pressure Distorts Our Sense of Time.” Visited on October 9th, 2012:

Summary:  The perceived difficulty and deadline pressure associated with a task alters our perception of time. In an initial study, subject were presented with a series of tasks of varying difficulty and asked how far away the day of completion felt to them. The tasks that were more complex and work intensive were perceived as being further in the future. To arrive at this result our brains are translating effort into time, assuming that the more difficult tasks must be further away since they will require more work to complete.

An opposite effect is encountered when deadlines are associated with the tasks. If subjects are presented with either an easy or difficult task that they must complete by a set date in the future, those with the more complex and effortful task report that the date feels much closer to them than those with the simple task. This effect may sometimes cause us to feel overwhelmed as multiple complex tasks pile up on us, but our skewed perception of time also ensures that we typically complete necessary tasks within the actual amount of time available.

Conceptual Design:  When designing a product, how do we want our users to experience time and deadline pressures? The goals could be very different between a project management application and an enjoyable game. The key idea from this article that should be kept in mind when developing products is that presenting a user with more complex tasks will make them feel additional time pressure, and will compel them to an increased state of productivity. This will come at the cost of stress on the user, and may diminish their enjoyment of using our product if their end goal is not to maximize productivity.

Interaction Design:  When designing how users will interact with our product, we should keep in mind that smaller tasks might seem a lot more manageable to our users. Breaking up a single complex task and presenting it to a user as a series of smaller, incremental steps might allow them accomplish the overall task with less of a feeling of stress. Alternately, presenting an overview of the status of all outstanding tasks could increase the pressure on our users, increasing productivity gains. In the case of a project management application, it may be beneficial to show more tasks and their states so that users can accomplish more in their work day. In the case of a role-playing video game it might be more enjoyable to keep the user focused on the single task at hand and then allow them to uncover new tasks as they progress.

Interface Design:  How the interface presents tasks to the user will be critical in managing their behavior. Want productivity? Present all outstanding tasks in a summary view with red blinking lights for all of the work yet to be completed. Want to reduce stress and increase enjoyment, at the cost of absolute productivity? Keep the user focused on the task at hand, and only present new tasks when necessary.