Time in Words

April 14, 2010 — Code

The trend during the past several years towards labels like:

2 hours ago

instead of timestamps like:

3:47pm

is something I’ve never been completely comfortable with. I think the problem the wordy labels try to solve (quick understanding of a point in time relative to the present) is real and I think they are a decent solution, but they create another problem in the process.

I experience this new problem most often on my cell phone which tells me that I received a call 1 hour ago, meaning anything from 60 to 119 minutes ago. If I was on a call with a client and I need to know how long it was for billing purposes, 1 hour ago is not good enough. Why do I get a more precise time if I look at the call log in a week when it gives up trying to use words and tells me the actual date and time the call was started?

Web sites which list user content in non-chronological order (eg: Stack Overflow) often do this too, making it hard to determine what was written first, which is vital if the content is at all conversational. Again, come back in a week and it will be 10:42am instead of 2 hours ago, but why can’t we know the exact time when it was just a few hours ago? Often that’s when you need it the most.

Unfortunately I don’t have a great alternative solution to this problem. Using a combination of the two:

2 hours ago (10:42am)

or

10:42am (2 hours ago)

is a obvious but inelegant (and potentially confusing) answer. In some situations colors or shading could be used to indicate the relative position of a given timestamp, for example:

08:50pm
07:02pm
06:43pm
05:33pm
04:17pm
03:30pm
02:38pm
01:35pm
12:34pm
11:05am
10:42am

But this is only applicable in situations like above where many timestamps are listed together, since we don’t have any natural associations between colors and the idea of “recentness” (though perhaps there’s a metaphor that I haven’t thought of like red for hot/recent). Text size could also be used, like this:

08:50pm
07:02pm
06:43pm
05:33pm
04:17pm
03:30pm
02:38pm
01:35pm
12:34pm
11:05am
10:42am

but it looks a little goofy. Tag clouds seem to work, but again that’s many things listed together so the visual differences become immediately apparent, if not their meaning.

If anyone has a better idea, please post a comment.


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