Psychological time and UX

What is psychological time and how can it can be manipulated by design?


Maria Panagiotidi

2 years ago | 4 min read

When I first started my journey as a researcher, I was fascinated by the way humans experience time and how this can be manipulated. As a result, time perception and the way it is affected by music was the topic of my dissertation and my first two academic articles. Many years have passed since then but I still find this topic intriguing and more relevant than ever! In this article, I’ll be discussing psychological time and how it can be manipulated by UX design.

Psychological time

What is psychological time? The time perceived by our brain is different from the time that we measure with a stopwatch and is known as psychological time. The perception and value of time fluctuate according to many internal and external factors, such as levels of anxietytime of day, cultural backgroundmusical training.

Almost any event can be expressed by two different phases: active and passive. The active phase, or active wait, is characterized by the user’s mental activity. The active wait can be seen as occupied time — users are engaged in an activity instead of focusing on the passing of time. The period in which the user has no choice or control over the waiting time, such as standing in line or waiting for a loved one who is late for the date, is called a passive phase, or passive wait (unoccupied). On average, people in passive wait mode overestimate their waiting time compared to active wait. Here are some real-life examples of this:

Houston, we have a problem

About 10 years ago executives at a Houston airport faced a troubling customer-relations issue. An inordinate number of complaints were flowing in about the long wait times in the baggage claim area. At first, the executives hired more baggage handlers leading to a significant decrease in wait times. The average wait was about eight minutes, which is well within industry benchmarks. Much to the surprise of the executives, the complaints persisted!

Photo by Phil Mosley on Unsplash

After taking a closer look at the user experience and conducting a more careful, on-site analysis, the executives realized what the issue was; it took passengers a minute to walk from their arrival gates to baggage claim and seven more minutes to collect their bags. Passengers spent around 88% of their time idle (passive wait!). As a result, a new solution was offered. Instead of reducing wait times, the airport moved the arrival gates farther from the main terminal and routed bags to the outermost carousel. Passengers now had to walk six times longer to get their bags (active phases). This solution was very effective; even though the total wait time was similar, complaints dropped to near zero! So changing the type of wait from passive to active had a big impact on user experience.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall

Sasser et al. (1979) wrote about a well-known hotel group that faced a similar problem as the executives at Houston airport. In a multistoried office building in New York occupants began complaining about the poor lift service provided in the building. Occupants claimed that the waiting times for the lifts at peak hours were excessively long. This problem was so disruptive that several of the tenants threatened to break their leases. An engineering study was conducted to identify a solution to this problem. Due to the age of the building, no actual work could be done to improve the speed of the lift within the specified budget, so an alternative solution needed to be found!

Photo by Derrick Treadwell on Unsplash

The management concluded that the occupants’ complaints were a consequence of boredom. Therefore, the problem could be solved by giving them something to occupy their time. In a time without mobile phones, the suggestion was installing mirrors in the lift boarding areas so that those waiting could look at themselves (or others!). Having nothing to lose, the management installed the mirrors and waited. According to Sasser, this was very effective and the complaints stopped!

Time appears to slow down while we are waiting for something to happen and focus our attention on the passage of time. “A watched pot never boils” or as William James eloquently described:

“Boredom results from being attentive to the passage of time itself”. — William James

In order to improve user experience, it is important to minimize waiting times (up to a point), or “fill up” time in a constructive way. A great example of this is Google Chrome’s internet connection error. Instead of seeing a typical boring error screen, users have the option to play a simple but addictive runner game, Chrome Dino. Taking users’ attention away from the passage of time itself leads to an underestimation of total waiting times and improves UX.

screenshot from Google Chrome’s dinosaur game (source: The Chromium Authors)


Ackoff, R. and Greenberg, D. (2008) Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back on Track, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Maister, D. (1985). The Psychology of Waiting Lines. In J. A. Czepiel, M. R. Solomon & C. F. Surprenant (Eds.), The Service encounter: managing employee/customer interaction in service businesses. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, Lexington Books.

Norman, D. A. (2009). Designing waits that work. MIT Sloan Management Review, 50(4), 23-28.

Sasser, W. E., Olsen, J and Wyckoff, D. D. (1979). Management of Service Operations, New York: Allyn and Bacon.

(story originally published in UX Psyschology)


Created by

Maria Panagiotidi

UX researcher, cognitive psychologist, science communicator, street photographer, amateur baker. I like wearing multiple hats!







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