Over the last year, my THINK colleagues and I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking and discussing the concept of cadence as it relates to experiences and designing experiences. For us, cadence is a regular beat or rhythm, a flow of events or the pattern in which something happens and is experienced. We’ve considered the philosophical aspects of cadence, the technical aspects and even the natural and biological aspects of cadence. It’s a very deep, very rich subject that we will continue to explore, write about and incorporate into our practice whenever possible. Cadence is a heady subject for us too. It is simultaneously exhilarating, intoxicating and cleverly multi-faceted. There is so much to consider and explore, so many layers and so much depth. It’s a subject rich with design opportunity as well. Perhaps that is why we are so intrigued by it.
Last year, O’Reilly published Dan Saffer’s book on Microinteractions. It’s a very thoughtful exploration of design details, the small things that make the experience or that bring a certain amount of magic to the experience. Dan references the works and philosophies of Dieter Rams, Charles Eames and Don Norman (among others) in his book. All agree that the magic is in the details. Small things matter a lot and grand designs are nothing without attention to detail. Dan does a nice job of highlighting examples of great little details and of pointing out how easy it is to get caught up in bigger aspects of a project while the details get overlooked and forgotten leading to experiences that are less than they could be. Dan’s also pretty honest about how these oversights happen to the best of us – and to the best teams. Little things matter a lot, but they also require more attention than we sometimes acknowledge.
So too with time. Time is so very natural and continuous and important and yet, we rarely stop to think about what time means to our work. Or how we might harness time to craft better experiences. Time may be the ultimate small, but crucial detail. It may be the most powerful tool in our design arsenal. By understanding time and experiences and how time unfolds for users, we can enhance both the micro and macro interactions we design. We can thoughtfully design for a first use experience, for an experience 30 days later, for an experience 90 days later, and for how those experiences differ or transform over time. To do this, we have to think about the layers of cadence. These are essentially the building blocks for designing with time. Each layer is important and powerful and is able to stand-alone. But, each layer also builds upon the previous and lays the foundation for the next.
Consider the following layers of cadence:
- Sub-seconds . . . become seconds
- Seconds . . . become minutes
- Minutes . . . become hours
- Hours . . . become days
- Days . . . become weeks
- Weeks . . . become months
- Months . . . become years
- Years . . . become decades
It’s an exercise in metaphysics and it has a near infinite trajectory. It also translates easily into user experience and interaction design:
- Sub-seconds may be used to craft menu interactions, transitions and small animations. These small transitions are very powerful and, often, they deliver an over-sized degree of meaning.
- Seconds may be used to craft larger interactions such as posting status updates or scrolling though a series of tiles or skimming content.
- Minutes and hours may be used to design sessions. These are longer-term, more intense interactions such as word-processing, 3D-modeling or gaming.
- Usage and routine describe experiences that happen frequently, purposefully and regularly. This is how we might think of software used daily as part of a job.
- Sometimes digital experiences become a part of life with usage happening on a very regular basis over several years. This may be work related, game related or social in nature. Facebook is a social property that has become a part of life for many people and, although the cadence, intensity and duration of Facebook interactions may vary by user, it has proven to have staying power and it fulfills a number of needs for users.
- The transition from beginner to expert is another time-based construct that has significant meaning and can be a powerful differentiator in the market place. The faster a user can transition from beginner to expert, the more efficient he or she will be with the digital tool/property/service. In the context of business, this often has direct financial consequences in the form of employee efficiency, lower support costs, higher transactional volume, etc.
Each interaction is simultaneously discrete and part of an overall, cumulative experience. Each experience unfolds over time. It’s the universal DNA of experience. Oddly, it’s rarely discussed as part of the overall design criteria for a project. Why is this? Why are we, as designers and as business people, reluctant to talk about time? Why are we reluctant to discuss cadence as it relates to experiences? This is a cycle we need to break. Our ability to design successful experiences and interactions requires that we understand time, understand the experience we are trying to create and understand the cadence of the experience:
- Some experiences happen only once – entering a contest, for instance.
- Some experience happen only once a year. Renewing your license plate is a good example. As such, it’s always a first-time experience. Users know they’ve done it before, but likely can’t remember the details.
- Then, there are experiences that happen regularly, such as paying bills, that have short durations, but must be easy and executed without error. Often, these experiences are not as memorable as they could be, nor do they elicit the level of confidence and security that could make them better, more memorable or even somewhat magical.
- For many people, online shopping has a rhythm or cadence that can be – nee, should be – designed for. This cadence may revolve around sales events, calendar events (Christmas, birthdays, Mother’s Day, first day of school, etc.), seasons, etc. These experiences may happen through a variety of channels too (e-mail promotions, in-store comparison shopping on a mobile device, online exclusives through a website or app, etc.). Numerous re-engagement strategies can be employed to bring users back and to encourage time on site, incentivize spending, etc. Retail experiences can become routines quite easily.
- Professional tools often become routine and a part of life as well. As such, designers should consider what it means to use a tool for many hours at a time on a daily or near daily basis. How does this experience evolve over time. Are there ways to apply algorithms that will enhance the experience? Can the concept of progressive reduction make the experience better or more efficient? Can it be used to encourage longer sessions or a higher adoption rate for the tool?
So, let’s have this conversation with our teams and our clients. Let’s make sure we all understand not just why someone engages with our digital channels and experiences, but how long those interactions should last – and why. Let’s identify the frequency and intensity we want to design for and then build in the right hooks, content, interaction modalities and feedback loops to encourage the user behaviors we desire. Let’s seek out and design the small, but magical, details that set the experience apart. If we don’t talk about these things, we’ll never be able to design for them.
Time marches inexorably forward and we all live in a world that is choking on data smog. We have too many devices, screens, apps and channels vying for our attention constantly. This isn’t going to change. We don’t have enough time to do the things we enjoy doing. Sadly, this isn’t going to change either. So, let’s focus on creating great experiences that maximize the value of time, provide as much delight as possible and reduce the sense of burden for the user. Designing with time isn’t just good design, it’s design that values and respects users and the brands they are engaged with.
Ps. If you haven’t read Dan’s book, it’s worth the time.