Design For Human Time

Time moves at the speed we perceive it and that affects how we design for how we experience it.

If you’ve ever lost yourself in a project, wondered where the time went, or found yourself looking over at the clock and asking how it can possibly be only 15 minutes later, you know how time plays with our senses.

Without getting to metaphysical, it’s easy to see how time is a construct we make up to fit the situation. We might share time — scheduled appointments, anniversaries, changes in seasons — but our moment-to-moment experiences are our own.

Designing for humans this means understanding that time is something we all share and experience uniquely. It also requires our attention.

Designing for Chronos

Chronos is a reference in Greek history and mythology to what we might call ‘clock time.’ This is the hours, days, months and onward march of time from the present. It’s what we refer to when we say ‘there are only so many hours in the day.

When designing anything for humans it’s important to consider how they see and use this conception of time. What is scheduled in their calendar? What rituals, events, and activities are planned and how much of that clock time does it take?

It exposes discrepancies between how humans speak to themselves and what they do. A former client of mine prided themselves on being a learning organization. I asked them about how they learned in my conversations with them. They spoke about the patterns of their reading, research, and integration of knowledge.

After some discussion I learned that they dedicated about 20 minutes each month to actual learning activities. Furthermore, they gave less than 15 minutes every month to sharing what they learned with others. The truth was that they didn’t allocate or provide much time at all to learn or use evidence.

To design for learning, they needed to create intentional space in their calendar for reading, watching, interacting and sharing what they learned.

Design for Kairos

Kairos is about the right time and timing of things. It’s one thing to put something in your calendar, but if it’s not the right thing or learned at the appropriate time, it is unlikely to be beneficial. Designing for Kairos time is also about creating opportunities for serendipity to occur.

Kairos-informed design means putting into place the practices, processes, and space (literally shaping our environments) that are conducive to creativity, learning, and reflecting. It’s not just the amount of time, but creating the right timing.

In the case of my client mentioned above, they were so focused on designing chronos time to be filled with activities they left little opportunities for kairos-style learning. Yet, when I asked them what they learned the most over the previous year it nearly always tied to serendipitous moments. The more of them they had for a variety of reasons, the more they learned.

Designing For Praxis

Praxis is the integration of learning with doing. It’s something that also transcends and weaves together Chronos and Kairos time. Designing for praxis recognizes that we learn through what we do, our interactions, our attention, and our motivation.

We engage in praxis when we meaningfully attend to what we’re doing and approach our work with an open mind, focus, and curiosity.

To design for praxis means creating space for dedicated learning, reflection, and application of what we expose ourselves to. It’s not enough to be exposed to something there must be the time to integrate, reflect on and apply what is known. That might mean connecting new things to what’s already known or experienced or it might mean revealing new patterns that are created.

As I’ve written before, must of what we call learning isn’t so. We need to be serious about learning and that means giving it time (Kairos and Chronos), care, and attention. Humans tend to cram things in and ignore Kairos in favour of Chronos and yet also complain about the lack of time.

That is what we design for.

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash and by Javier Esteban on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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