The perception of time in design: Shaping user experiences through the lens of time

Prathyusha Shastry
5 min readSep 13, 2023


On a recent Friday evening, as I tuned into a movie and placed an order for pizza through a well-crafted and widely-used food delivery app, something remarkable happened — I time-traveled! Yes, you read that right. Let me explain. The user experience was so impeccably smooth that it seemed to warp time itself. There I was, effortlessly navigating the app, placing my order, and finalizing the payment, all while the movie played on. It was a seamless symphony of cinematic entertainment and culinary delight, orchestrated by design.

Let me dissect this experience for you. It wasn’t just about the movie being too engrossing to notice the typical cumbersome process of ordering food. No, this was different. My perception of time had genuinely shifted, as if the minutes and seconds had conspired to condense themselves.

As a UX designer, this got me thinking. Could it be that my mind is playing games and creating time-bending sensations? Could a great user experience, in its finest form, have the power to distort our perception of time?
Let’s dive a tad deeper.

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Perception of time: What does it mean?
Perception of time refers to how individuals subjectively experience the passage of time. It is a psychological and cognitive phenomenon that varies from person to person and can be influenced by various factors, including attention, engagement, emotions, and external stimuli.

Distortion of time perception occurs when an individual’s perception of time does not align with objective time intervals. In other words, it feels like time is passing faster or slower than it actually is. This distortion can take two forms: contraction and dilation.

  • Contraction of Time: This phenomenon occurs when an individual feels that time is passing swiftly and seamlessly. In such moments, minutes can seem to fly by, much like the sensation of watching a captivating movie that leaves you pleasantly surprised at how quickly it concludes.
  • Dilation of Time: In contrast, time dilation transpires when an individual perceives an interaction as prolonged. During these instances, tasks may appear to drag on, and the individual may experience moments of frustration or impatience, akin to watching a clock on a slow afternoon.

Several factors can contribute to this distortion:

  • Engagement and Flow State: When people are deeply engaged in an activity they enjoy or find meaningful, they often lose track of time.
  • Attention and Focus: When individuals are highly focused on a task, they may underestimate the time that has passed because their attention is directed away from monitoring the clock.
  • Emotions: Strong emotions, such as fear, excitement, or stress, can alter time perception. For example, in a stressful situation, time may seem to slow down as individuals process information more quickly in an effort to respond to the situation.
  • External Stimuli — Sensory engagement: External stimuli, such as music, visual effects, or immersive experiences, can impact time perception. Stimuli that capture and engage the senses can create a sense of time distortion, making an experience feel longer or shorter than it actually is.
  • Monotony vs. Novelty: Engaging in repetitive or monotonous tasks can make time feel like it is dragging, while novel and exciting experiences can make time appear to fly by.
  • Attentional Blink: Missing brief stimuli due to lingering processing of previous stimuli can distort timing.
  • Age and Experience: Time perception can vary with age and life experience. Young children often feel that time moves slowly, while older individuals may perceive time as passing more quickly as they accumulate more life experiences.

What is the role of time in UX?

Time is a crucial factor in user experiences, alongside elements like motion, flow, space, appearance, and sound. While time is an objective metric indicating direction, its perception is subjective and tied to the concept of the “arrow of time.”

A user experience is a dialogue between a user and a product/ system/ service through an interplay between form, function, and technology “manifested over time”. User experiences develop over time and culminate in an experience…

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On a macro level time talks about reality… “TIME” is the only constant…” What is real and unreal?”, “How does a person’s reality look like?”. As designers, we often say that the most effective design comes by empathizing with the user, but what is empathizing if not to say that it is about understanding “what is someone’s reality like?

What is the perception of time in UX?

Time consciousness in UX centers on how users perceive time as they engage with a product or service. It revolves around the concept of the “experienced moment,” a brief interval lasting around 100 milliseconds or a tad more.

UX designers leverage their understanding of temporal dynamics to create experiences that align with user expectations. Skillfully managing the interplay between contraction and dilation allows designers to craft interfaces that intuitively synchronize with the user’s temporal journey.

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Design strategies for temporal user experiences include:

  • Emotional design — By combining functionality with the ability to evoke emotions, you can develop experiences that deeply engage users
  • Using sensory signaling — Utilizing sensor-based signaling, including visual cues, auditory feedback, haptic feedback, kinesthetic interactions, and proxemic cues, can deeply engage users. These sensory inputs make the user more connected to the product, encouraging active participation and potentially altering their perception of time.
  • Managing Cognitive Load — addressing “attentional blinks”, giving not more than the user can chew.
  • Setting Clear Objectives — Providing users with transparent goals and immediate next steps prevents temporal dissonance.
  • Dynamic Layouts — Static layouts can induce time dilation, while dynamic designs, employing techniques like repetition for rhythm, foster the perception of flowing time.
  • Contextual Timing — Offering progress indicators or feedback at opportune moments enhances temporal coherence

are some ways to do it…

Exploring these aspects allows us to wield the power of time consciousness deliberately. Depending on the user’s context and the desired experience, we can make time appear contracted or expanded, all while enhancing the overall user experience. It’s all about creating experiences that are finely attuned to the user’s temporal sensibilities.

The takeaway

In conclusion, time is a multidimensional aspect of UX design. Effective UX design considers both the objective aspects of time and the subjective experiences of users to create engaging and efficient interactions. Understanding and managing time consciousness can lead to more satisfying and enjoyable user experiences.

Thank you for reaching the end of the article! I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.



Prathyusha Shastry

Communication and Interaction designer | Masters in design from National Institute of Design | Website