in Digital Web

The Cost of Timestamps

Growing up, I loved getting mail. I recall waiting for the mailman on days when I was home. How much mail does a pre-teen get anyway? Not a lot. Some postcards, a note from my aunt stationed in Germany. Eventually, college packets and other junk would arrive as I got older. Instant messaging had at least a modicum of friction because it existed in a world where most people at home weren’t always online. I recall putting up an away message or letting people know when I’d be back, so there wasn’t an expectation they were being ignored.

These days, it’s almost impossible to keep up with everyone wanting a second of your time in one form or another.

In her book, Alone Together, Shirley Turkle explores this modern conundrum.

“Texting offers just the right amount of access, just the right amount of control. She is a modern Goldilocks: for her, texting puts people not too close, not too far, but at just the right distance. The world is now full of modern Goldilockses, people who take comfort in being in touch with a lot of people whom they also keep at bay.”
― Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

Nobody talks about the price of stamps as much as they used to, because we so rarely send personal letters. Postage matters when you care about Amazon sending you a flat rate package faster, but gone are the days of obsessing over the right amount of stamps for sending individual letters to your pen pal or friend across the pond who you haven’t called in weeks because it’s too expensive to do all of the time.

As marketers and product people, how often do we consider people’s time in our design? I’m not talking about page load times or the opaque “time on page” metric in Google Analytics. I once joked on Twitter that app designers should make their apps with the idea that people are driving 60 mph reading whatever it is on the screen. It’s a horrifying thought at first, but how much are we considering the stress cases that are a lot more unique than our ideal personas would have us believe. Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher explore this in “Design For Real Life”:

“As you write your personas and scenarios, don’t drain the life from them: be raw, bringing in snippets of users’ anecdotes, language, and emotion wherever you can. Whoever picks these personas up down the line should feel as compelled to help them as you do.”


Designers need to ask better questions about our complicity in a world that makes people more anxious through tools aimed at making our lives better. It’s not only an exercise in self-control, it’s recognizing the unwitting ways that our desires for connection leave us tethered when we should be more present. It might sell fewer widgets, perhaps fewer people will check into your app more. But what about thinking aloud about being human in the ways that we construct and design for real people? So much of our design is created for an aggregated populace; we traffick in habits and trends rather than real experiences. This construct makes it easier to detach ourselves from the impact and outcomes of design decisions made in an open-office somewhere far from where regular people are using what we make.

As apps proliferate, we have to ask ourselves whether every intrusion is warranted. Instead of thinking of our product as the one solving problems others leave behind, we need to confront each interaction as an intrusion. Every time we ask someone to track what they did, when they did it and assume they meant it as a result, we’re creating an imprint that might trigger a domino effect that transforms their life — not always for the better.


Also published on Medium.