Blog about architectural and design psychology

Time is a sensation

The perception of time is subjective. Good design is able to influence it in the right way.

Only few things have such an impact on our daily life like time has. For the experience of products and services, it plays a crucial role. However, it is also hard to grasp. A certain time span can either feel longer or shorter. For a few years, psychological researchers have therefore been interested in the reason why time seems to pass fast or slow. So far, causes are anything but clear. For design, a few aspects can be derived anyway.

How does time perception work?

The general origin of time perception cannot be defined with certainty, yet. A rather early approach assumes that humans have some sort of biological mechanism that works similarly to a clock. It is supposed to consist of an inner pacemaker evoking beats and an accumulator that is able to receive and store the beats. The more beats the accumulator registers, the longer a certain time span feels. The speed of the pacemaker depends on the condition of the body and the individual situation.

Mechanical description of humans like this clock-model have been popular in psychology for quite some time. In the mid-20th century people were excited about the fast technological development. Mechanical models were deemed to be a possibility to render complex human processes a little bit more intelligible and measurable. Today, these models are still widely spread due to their high level of sophistication and as they are indeed able to explain human behavior and perception in many conditions. However, some researchers are critical, too. Does human time perception really work like a ticking clock? Perhaps, this model is a little bit too simplifying.

A more recent approach is that time perception does not depend on a single process. Instead, sense of time might rather be a byproduct of a number of different physical signals and processes. The hypothesis is that humans unconsciously use changes in the condition of their body as an indicator of elapsing time. Especially people, who are very sensitive in relation to body signals such as heart rate or skin temperature showed to be able to estimate the duration of time spans more accurately.

Eine Uhr im Hauptbahnhof Leipzig – wo Menschen warten, ist Zeitdesign besonders entscheidend.

A clock in Leipzig main station – where people have to wait, time design is crucial.

What role does time play in design?

Time is precious and that is why humans do not want to waste it. Today, is seems that many people even experience a proper compulsion to optimize their time. Humans are confronted with an abundance of opportunities as to what to do with their lives and how to fill their days. Many appear to be stressed by the thought that they have to miss out on most of the opportunities. One response can be to try and squeeze as many activities as possible in one hour, one day, one year. If that really causes a better utilization of lifetime is an open question. Seneca covered this topic in his paper De Brevitate Vitae (engl. On the Shortness of Live).

Anyhow, this tendency certainly leads to rising requirements for products and services in terms of time design. Especially, designers should be prepared for a general impatience of users. A website that takes too long to load or a café, where the waiters are too slow, are quite unlikely to be visited a second time. Likewise, saving of time is probably one of the biggest selling points, today. With new high speed lines, travelers are supposed to arrive in less amount of time. Modern gyms pledge to cut down the weekly work-out to only 20 minutes thanks to electromagnetic muscle stimulation.

With increasing time pressure, the significance of free time rises, too. More and more people work in their home office or on projects that lack a clear separation between work and free time. They are constantly “wired” with their smart phones and notebooks. The few spare hours are thus to be enjoyed to the fullest. Travelers often expect that every day of their holidays should bring something special: skydiving, swimming with dolphins or hiking on mountain trails – a regular day in the vacation home is not enough anymore.

Yet even in less exciting contexts, dealing with time is a matter of concern. Be it at the dentist, in an airplane or during the installation of software. Successful time design should aim to extend pleasant moments and abbreviate the unpleasant ones. What is more, good design can elicit the feeling of having plenty of time in stressed human beings. For instance, how can visitors of a furniture shop feel like they love spending their time there instead of wasting hours in endless aisles?

Ein Sonnenuntergang über Berlin – der Anblick lässt die Zeit vergessen.

A sunset over Berlin – a view that let’s you forget the time.

What influences time perception?


Time elapses more slowly if you direct your attention to it. Waiting for a train can feel like eternity if you count the minutes. If you read a newspaper or drink a cup of coffee instead, the train will arrive before you know it. At the supermarket checkout, on the other hand, it is often not possible to occupy oneself easily holding the shopping basket in one’s hand. Accordingly, many people are quite keen on finding the shortest queue. Even if the difference might only be a couple of minutes, it feels considerable.

In contrast, attention can also be used to pronounce pleasant moments. For example, in a massage practice, it might be advisable not to talk to the client about an unrelated topic during the massage as this would direct their attention away from the massage itself. This way, time would seem to pass more quickly. The examples show that time design is highly related to the field of service design.


During regular activities, for instance when cooking or when driving a car, one or two seconds are not a lot of time. In very emotional situations, though, time can almost freeze. This moment, when you jump from a 10 meter diving board or laugh your head off together with your friends, tends to feel longer than the moment, when you put some spaghetti into a pot.

This especially applies to short instants in which emotions can fully come into effect. The body plays a key role here. Emotions put the body into an excited condition: the pulse gets faster and the respiration speeds up. With regards to the clock-model, one could say that the inner pacemaker, which divides the continuous time into sections, accelerates, too. This way, the pacemaker can evoke more beats in a given amount of time and thus make the time span appear extended.

Die Vorfreude auf eine große Feier kann zur Zerreißprobe werden.

The anticipation of a big celebration can become a real test.


From award presentations we know that anticipation can influence our perception of time. After the famous words “and the winner is…”, when the laudator pulls the card out of the envelope, it feels like you are waiting forever to hear who won the price. In turn, if you would pull a regular letter out of its envelope that you are not particularly interested in, the same time span would hardly feel as long. It is our anticipation of the winner’s name that stretches the waiting time.

The effect is even stronger for unpleasant stimuli. If you squeeze a balloon between your hands, you know that at some point it is going to burst with a loud bang. The milliseconds before it actually pops are likely going to feel very extended and clear to you. The reason may be that your body transfers into a tensed condition, ready to react at any time.

Therefore, people who are waiting at an administrative office or at the station should be informed about the total waiting time. Otherwise, they will be in a permanent anticipation that prolongs the perceived waiting time. To the contrary, this effect can be utilized at concerts or displays of fireworks. Usually, they are subdivided by small breaks and encores that leave the spectator with uncertainty about when the show will be over. This makes the whole performance seem to take longer.


If you move to a new apartment and go to work from there for the first time, the commute probably feels longer than when you are already used to it. New stimuli are generally perceived to take more time than known ones. According to Eagleman et al. (2009) this may be because it takes more effort to process new stimuli. The greater cognitive effort leads to more attention being directed towards the stimuli and thus it takes up more space in the consciousness.

This correlation plays an important role when it comes to services. Given that a customer would like to register a new SIM card for their smartphone, the unknown registration process will feel much longer for them than for the staff working in the shop. In trainings, it might be highlighted to the employees that their own perception of the registration process might be very different than the one of the customers. This might help them gaining a better understanding for customers and attending their needs.


Especially when estimating the duration of a time span in retrospect, memories have a big impact. Two weeks of holidays, in which you travel to the sea with friends, read a whole book and buy a new couch for your living room, might retrospectively feel like a month. Two regular working weeks instead might drag on, but once they’ve passed you wonder where the time went. Depending on how many memories you have about a time span, it feels longer in retrospect.


Time might be the most precious thing we have. This was as much true in antiquity as it is today. Designers are responsible for the form and functionality of something that claims to take up people’s time. Good time design should therefore always be a matter of concern. How does the product or service treat people’s time? And how can positive moments of the interaction be pronounced while negative once are mitigated? Good time design can be achieved by controlling attention and anticipations as well as by incorporating effects of newness, emotions and memories. The goal should be that users get the feeling of having invested their time well.