PATHWAY

A New Approach to Time Management

PATHWAY

A New Approach to Time Management
Pathway is a new approach to time and task management. The product of intensive user research, Pathway abandons the syntax of traditional paper calendars and places the user’s mental model at the forefront of the UI. Pathway allows for better time management by adding context and explicitly visualizing the relationships between events and tasks. Focusing on the time management features users indicated were the most useful, the UI allows users to quickly capture and modify events through simple gestures and to identify priorities from a single screen.
BACKGROUND
Why another calendar? Although Pathway was formed by user research, it began out of personal frustration. I was having a hard time managing the competing demands of multiple projects using the time management tools currently available to me. The heart of the problem is that monthly calendars and daily agendas don’t look like the image of time I keep in my head. Calendars focus on time and place – where and when I need to be somewhere. But once I’m where I need to be, I don’t usually require a lot of additional information. What calendars don’t represent well are the things I need to accomplish prior to an event. Put another way, calendars may show an event but they don’t do a very good job of representing the work that needs to be done prior to it. I need to be able to identify where tasks can fit in, what the priority of the moment needs to be, and where my schedule has some give to it. Solving this problem requires a new way of representing our time commitments. The relationship between related events and tasks needs to be explicit, not dependent on the user’s ability to make inferences. Also, the relationship between multiple projects and shifting priorities needs to be apparent within the visual language.
RESEARCH
Once the scope of the project was defined, I initiated the research stage. I began with secondary research, reviewing the academic literature covering the cultural, psychological, and technical aspects of time perception and management. I also reviewed precedence – existing calendar and project management solutions. I then set about designing my primary research, developing an interview protocol and recruiting study participants.

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CURRENT TIME MANAGEMENT TOOLS

The first part of my protocol involved a straightforward interview and contextual inquiry intended to ascertain how people with complex schedules managed their time, including what tools they used, their effectiveness, the scope and effect of any shortcomings in their time management tools, and what workarounds were utilized.

GETTING AT PERCEPTIONS OF TIME

While crafting the research protocol, I expected the interview to yield information about the effectiveness of currently available tools and user behavior. However, I realized that it would not address a core component of my design premise – how to reshape the representation of time in order to match the users’ mental models. My secondary research indicated that people frequently have strong visual and spatial perceptions of time but these varied between individuals and were often difficult to describe. A chance encounter with a neurological researcher provided the seed of an idea. Even if my subjects found it difficult to directly verbalize their perception of time, clues might be present in the building blocks of their conversation – provided they were not directly focused on the answer.

With this in mind, I designed a probe intended to encourage my subjects to use hand gestures and to suggest mental images they could draw from. During the interview, a natural period of time was identified that the subjects used to plan their workload. For most subjects, this was between three to five days. Subjects were then asked to visualize themselves in their choice of a well-stocked hardware, craft, or toy store. From the imaginary items available, they were asked to construct a representational model of their work period. A note was made of the structure and qualities of the model as well as any hand gestures used in describing it.

TIME VISUALIZATION FINDINGS

Depending on the scope, subjects described time as cyclical or linear, occupying a timeline, grid, or circle. Initial explorations considered the conflicting cultural conventions regarding time and attempted to reconcile these disparate forms. As a result of the perception probe, I was able to identify three core ways my subjects thought about time:

  • Compartmental – These subjects thought about their work period as adaptable, using examples that suggested compartmentalization and the ability to sort and prioritize events such as drawers or containers. This group tended to use vertical hand gestures, as if stacking and sorting items.
  • Continuum – These subjects viewed time as immutable and described events as residing on a string (beads) or plane (sheets) whose order could not be changed. This group used horizontal gestures, as if running their hands along a rope or over a flat plane.
  • Symbolic – An unanticipated group emerged who expressed discomfort with the visualization exercise. During the probe, this subject group reported symbolic representation of events, organizing their model spatially or visually with items standing in for people and tasks. This group kept their hands firmly in place as they spoke.

FINDINGS & INSIGHTS

Calendars were an essential but problematic fact of life for these working professionals. Despite numerous offerings, I had a difficult time finding anyone truly content with their calendar. Analysis of my user research strongly suggested that task management is the primary function people in my subject group were interested in. The 80/20 rule was clearly demonstrated: approximately 80% of participants reported using only a small percent of the features available in current time management applications (some shunned such applications due to unneeded features) while approximately 20% reported using most of the features in the tools available. Conversely, every participant reported some attempt to hack their task management system and indicated that identifying available work time was a prime consideration when accessing their calendar.

Based on my research, I concluded that there was merit in redesigning a time management system provided it accurately reflected the usage patterns of the study group. A successful design would:

  • Restructure the time management system around a task driven dashboard.
  • Improve the associative functions between task lists and file management.
  • Make free time more visible within the interface.
  • Streamline the process for entering reminders, particularly on mobile apps.
  • Move non-essential information to a supplementary screen to improve clarity.
CONCEPT DEVELOPMENT: DEFINING THE PROBLEM SPACE
The process of turning my user research into a viable design could best be described as distillation – taking a large quantity of raw information and turning it into meaningful insight. After transcribing each interview, I parsed each subject’s responses into individual statements containing a single idea. These were then rephrased into a simple declarative statement expressing a generalized concept. After doing this for every interview, I sorted these abstracted statements into related groups and used these as the basis for establishing design parameters.

TIME REPRESENTATION

Very early in my initial research I saw a disconnect between the form time management tools take and the time obligations of modern life. Grid based calendars are holdovers from a pre-digital age. When picturing my movements through time, I don’t think of a monthly grid. Yet, it remains the default frame of reference for time management; frequently serving as the iconic representation for most digital time management tools. So I began the concept development process with this premise: A calendar that looked and functioned the way people think about their time obligations would serve them better. I began to think in terms of a timesacape – a temporal landscape with metaphorical physical properties that represented the user’s mental model. By creating a graphical representation of the way that individuals move through their day, people with complex schedules would be better able to visualize their obligations and manage their time more effectively.

 

VARYING QUALITIES OF TIME

Traditional calendars are binary – time is either obligated or not. But that’s not how we function. Our time obligations are governed by a number of social conventions and practical restrictions. While an appointment with an important client and a casual weekend barbeque might both be recorded in a user’s calendar, it is unlikely they will be governed by the same expectations. Where five minutes early would be the expected norm for the appointment, the barbeque may have people arriving over an hour period or more without consequence. This distinction is more accurately captured in our language than our time management tools with descriptors such as “promptly” or “sharp” to describe highly rigorous time obligations and “around” and the suffix “-ish” used to indicate a more lax expectation. Knowing where there is some give in our schedule allows us to better manage our time. In developing my physical metaphor, I conceived of time as having varying states of matter:

  • Rigid Time – Formal obligated time governed by cultural convention. (e.g. Interviews, appointments, work hours)
  • Flexible Time – Obligated time governed by social expectations having some degree of implied forgiveness. (e.g. casual workgroups, casual social functions, personal interactions)
  • Fluid Time – Non-obligated time governed by individual time management skills and habit. This form of time is not typically captured or represented in conventional calendars yet it is where the majority of actual work is produced.

Changing states of time


REPRESENTATION OF PREP AND TRANSITION TIME

Digital clocks may quickly and precisely tell the time, but they require the user to calculate the time difference between now and a future event and determine if they are ahead of or behind schedule. Conversely, an analog display is less precise but does a better job of explicitly representing the time difference between now and an upcoming event. While we may designate a start and stop time for an event in our calendars, this is seldom an accurate reflection of our activities. We allow for travel or prep time, which varies by location and event type. Start and stop times are also frequently ambiguous. For example, a rigid time event such as a presentation to a client will likely have a well-defined start time, but may have an ambiguous end time depending on how many questions are asked following the presentation. Being able to represent these transitional qualities would allow for better time management.

Transition time is variable but needs to be allowed for.


INTERCONNECTEDNESS OF EVENTS AND TASKS

The workload of many working professionals does not consist of a series of stand-alone events. Instead, they are attached to larger projects that transition between events (committed time) and tasks (unstructured work time). Current calendars make a distinction between events and tasks. Events are recorded as individual blocks of committed time while tasks are usually maintained in a separate list. The connection between related events and tasks is not clearly indicated. Despite representing the majority of the actual workload that goes into a project, tasks are represented without time or place and seem like an afterthought, not a fully integrated feature. Related events and tasks needed to be represented as varying states of a larger single artifact – projects. At times, activities become highly structured, such as a meetings and at other times have minimal structure, such as when working on tasks – yet they remain part of the same project.

IDENTIFYING OPEN TIME

Research subjects indicated they were more likely to access their current calendar in order to identify uncommitted time – either for scheduling new committed time or finding free time to accomplish tasks – than they were to access existing events. Rather than having to infer open time, this suggested it should be explicitly represented within the interface.

SHIFTING PRIORITIES

All of my subjects reported working on multiple projects simultaneously. I believe it is safe to say this is a fact of modern life*. Managing our time requires not only the ability to prioritize activities within a project, but between projects as well. While a task may be the top priority for a project, activities for other projects may temporarily have to take precedence. Given that other tasks or stakeholders may be dependent on the completion of these tasks only complicates this aspect of time management. Visualizing changing priorities was one of the hardest aspects of time management my interview subjects reported and a significant number likened the experience to “putting out fires”.

* Not only in the working world but our personal lives as well. Any parent or caregiver could easily substitute family member for project and the idea would be just as valid.

BRINGING TASKS/TO-DO ITEMS TO THE FOREFRONT

While my subjects reported accessing their schedule (events) to widely varying degrees, all of them indicated a high degree of effort was spent managing their workload as represented in their task list. Many had devised innovative means of hacking their lists, maintaining awareness of it throughout their day. Conversely only a few subjects routinely consulted their calendar for more than an occasional reminder of when, where, and with whom they needed to be. It would seem self-evident that a successful time management tool would reflect this behavior and make tasks/to-do items central items within the interface.

CAPTURING AND EDITING ITEMS EASILY

Most research subjects reported that other than time, name, and occasionally location, they did not access the detailed event information fields. Several subjects had indicated they had ceased to use a time management tool because the process of entering new events was too onerous. Capturing or editing events needs to be an easy and quick process that impedes the flow of conversation as little as possible.

DESIGN SOLUTIONS: ADDING VALUE TO INSIGHT

I built on my earlier concept ‘distillations’, by adding groups of declarative statements to my sketchbook. Next to these, I began sketching visual and metaphorical representations of the ideas I was trying to capture. These were continually refined until the idea was translated into UI elements

Progression from general concepts into UI elements 


LAYOUT

Calendars and daily agendas typically utilize a primary vertical axis with the secondary horizontal axis defined by its capacity to contain a brief description of the event. Time progresses vertically to the end of the day and starts over on the next column or page. Knowing I wanted to create a visual metaphor for movement through time, I began reimagining the primary workspace.

Pathway interface

PRIMARY (HORIZONTAL) AXIS – Drawing from my visualization probe, common cultural metaphors and conventions, and non-calendar representations of time such as timelines, I opted to represent the flow of time along the horizontal axis. This was consistent with my design intent to create a visual metaphor analogous to physical movement.

SECONDARY (VERTICLE) AXIS – By imparting meaning to the secondary (vertical) dimension, I realized I could convey additional information within a two-dimensional space. Rather than merely being used to accommodate text, the secondary axis could be used to explicitly represent qualities of an event that could otherwise only be inferred with traditional calendars.

STATES OF TIME – Not all events are equal. Moreover relative importance can be difficult to easily read at a glance. We have an inherent bias towards size, giving more importance to larger items than smaller items. But we know that a 20 minute meeting with a supervisor can impact us more than the two hours we might have blocked out for an informal social event. Pathway’s visual language is designed to make this quality of time apparent at a glance. Building on insights gained from the concept development stage, I divided Pathway’s vertical axis into three zones:

Pathway uses three distinct time zones

  • RIGID – Formal events such as appointments that are tightly constrained by social contract. These events have very little malleability and close adherence to a schedule is expected.
  • FLEXIBLE – These are less formal events that are bound in time to a lesser degree. These events have some malleability and there is usually some tolerance for lax punctuality although it varies by circumstance and personal relationships.
  • FLUID – My research subjects indicated that much of their efforts went to identifying open time – either to schedule new events or to find time to work on existing tasks. This makes sense; just because a project doesn’t have an event scheduled doesn’t mean the project has ceased to exist. In fact, this unstructured time is when most of the actual work seems to get done. By giving it a space of its own, Pathway integrates task management directly into the primary workspace.

PROJECT TIMELINES – While individual events are easily captured and represented, Pathway’s true value comes from representing ongoing projects. Timelines are used to represent the ongoing but changing state of projects – shifting between formal meetings, informal workgroups, and unstructured work time, all with associated tasks.

MOST ACTIVE STATE – Activities for different projects can occur concurrently, especially when juggling multiple projects. Several of my subjects had likened prioritizing shifting tasks to putting out fires. Users need a clear indication of what the next priority needs to be. Pathway provides a visual hierarchy by automatically bringing the timeline with the next actionable item to the top. By working from the top down, the user is able to easily identify where the next fire is likely to spring up.

EVENTS

By definition, events represent obligated activities bound in time. These are the activities typically captured in traditional scheduling tools. However, Pathway affords a significantly greater understanding of the nature of the event through its visual representation.

Sample events

PLACEMENT – Events in Pathway can be formal events such as appointments and meetings or casual events such as social gatherings or collaborative work time. Formal events can be captured in the rigid time space (indicating the start and stop times should be interpreted literally) or in the flexible time space (indicating the activity may have some scheduling flexibility).

TRANSITION TIME – Being on time means allowing enough time to prepare and to get where you need to be. Pathway allows you to track this time by showing the transition time leading into and out of events. The transition slope can be modified as needed to represent a walk next door or a drive across town, allowing users to quickly identify when and how much time they need to prepare for an upcoming event.

TRANSITION SHOULDER – The beginning and ending times for events can have varying degrees of ambiguity. For Example: a presentation would be expected to start promptly but depending on the amount of follow-up questions, its stop time could be expected to vary; conversely, time scheduled for a mid-day run doesn’t need to start promptly, but it does need to end on time in order to allow for cleaning up before returning to work. Other events, such as a social gathering, may have a wide degree of latitude for both starting and stopping. Pathway allows users to capture and view this quality by changing the event shoulder from a sharp corner denoting a prompt transition time to a rounded shoulders to reflecting wider start/stop ranges.

TASK MANAGEMENT

Pathway was developed with the idea that tasks and events are usually part of a larger ecosystem composed of multiple projects with shifting priorities that need to be juggled. Task management is a central component of Pathway’s design.  Tasks are represented front and center on project timelines. Together with the fluid time space, they represent our unstructured work time – where work gets done.

CRITICAL PATH ANALYSIS – Pathway use Critical Path Analysis to track and prioritize tasks, allowing the user to quickly identify which tasks are the most pressing. Here’s how it works:

 

  • Known tasks are entered with estimated length, earliest start date, and any parent (prerequisite) tasks or dependent (subsequent) tasks.
  • Pathway calculates the total time required for every task chain permutation.
  • The longest task chain is identified as the critical path – the least compressible task chain representing the minimum amount of time required for project completion.
  • Pathway continually re-evaluates task lists as task status and available flex time changes and alerts the user to any changes in priorities.

MARKERS – Tasks are represented by markers in Pathway. They appear on project timelines in the flexible time space since this is when they are likely to be worked on. Users are able to quickly identify each task’s status by its appearance:

TYPE (Critical/Parallel) – Tasks that have been designated on the critical path determine when projects will be completed. These are designated with a diamond task marker. Tasks on a parallel (non-critical) task chain are denoted by a circle.

ACTIONABLE/ON TRACK/DRAGGING – Nonactionable tasks (dependent tasks awaiting the completion of a parent task) are shown grayed out and anchored to their earliest possible start time. Actionable tasks that are on schedule are shown in green, tasks nearing their scheduled completion date are shown in yellow, and tasks exhibiting drag (delaying the start of dependent tasks) are indicated in red.

INTERACTIONS

Pathway allows the user to quickly capture and edit on the fly through the use of gestures without having to navigate multiple pages or fields.

Adding/editing events

CAPTURING/EDITING EVENTS WITH GESTURES – Adding new events in Pathway is as simple as a long press then drawing in the event. A fly-out window then appears to add additional details. Editing is likewise accomplished by long pressing the item to be edited. Start/Stop, Transition Shoulders and Transition Time can all be edited by dragging the desired quality.

New tasks are added by long pressing the desired project timeline. A new task detail pop-out appears prompting the user for details. Long pressing an existing task allows it to be edited. As tasks are added or edited, Pathway re-evaluates the critical path and alerts the user to potential conflicts.

DETAILS – Double tapping an item creates a pop-out window showing additional information. Details can also be edited in this window.

NAVIGATION – Navigating the main timespace is accomplished through standard gesture patterns.

INTERFACE

Pathway’s interface is designed to provide the user with an at-a-glance assessment of their time obligations. In addition to the main time space, users have quick access to:

Navigation, Status, and Notification Bars

STATUS BAR – MEMO/DAY/TIME MARKER – Additional information about the day can be found in the status bar. Day, date, time of day, and a time marker allow the user quick access to details. Labels for holidays and recurring events also appear in this area. Many of my interview subjects indicated they relied on sticky notes so Pathway allows users to leave themselves reminders in this space as well.

NAVIGATION BAR – A visual overview is provided by the navigation bar, showing the main timespace relative to a larger time period.  Users are able to navigate Pathway’s main view quickly by dragging, pinching, and tapping within the navigation bar.

MENU/NOTIFICATION BAR – Access to settings, menus, and alerts are available in the menu/notification bar. Alarms, reminders, and conflict/schedule alerts are also visible in this area.

ADDITIONAL FEATURES

Pathway wasn’t just designed to tell time, it was designed to make better use of the time we have available. It incorporates several useful tools that make project management easier.

FILE MANAGEMENT – Task management is a central component of Pathway. Because managing tasks frequently involves managing digital assets, Pathway includes a file management tool that allows quick access to files linked to tasks. Files can be accessed and managed through the task’s detail panel.

SCENARIO BUILDER – Schedules aren’t written in stone; we are frequently asked to juggle existing events. Saying yes to the wrong request to reschedule a meeting could have unintended consequences down the road, especially when multiple projects are in play. Using the critical path tool and conflict alerts, Pathway allows users to build scenarios and understand how adjusting their schedule will impact their work load.

INTERFACE WALKTHROUGH

Walkthrough and user scenario