Dividing User Time Between Goal And Tool

by Jared M. Spool

Designers have to worry about two types of time their user spends interacting with their design: Tool Time and Goal Time.

Imagine the user wants to put together a presentation in Microsoft PowerPoint. They’ll spend some time refining what they want to say to their audience: What’s the key message? What are the right details? Are they being too confusing? Should they communicate with words, images, or charts? Other time they’ll spend making things bold, green, and flashy.

The difference between goal time and tool time is the increase in quality gained by spending the time. When the user is working on refining a presentation’s content, they are investing in goal time. The more goal time they can invest in, the better the quality their result.

In contrast, tool time, when extended doesn’t add to the quality of the result. If it takes twice as long to change a bulleted list to be a numbered list, the presentation won’t be better quality.

In fact, we can cut the amount of tool time in half without seeing any degradation in quality. That means, we leave more time for the user to put towards goal time.

When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about Flow, he’s talking about the ultimate goal time. Not all goal time achieves flow, but when it does, that’s when we see the best quality improvements. Creating a design that helps users reach the flow state is what we should strive for.

Flow is easily interrupted. Mihaly says it takes 20 minutes for someone to get into the flow state, but only seconds to lose it. Tool time activities, when they take too much attention, can break flow or prevent users from ever attaining it.

Imagine a woman visiting a website about pregnancy, fertility, and conception. She and her partner have been trying to have a baby for a while, but without success. Now she’s looking for information that could help them achieve this important goal.

The time she spends reading helpful articles is definitely goal time. If the articles are informative and well written, she’ll spend more time reading and become more knowledgeable… If she achieves flow, she’ll spend hours on the site without even realizing the time has passed. And, she’ll be happy about it!

However, the site’s navigation, the process for registering (so sponsors can send her “relevant” advertising emails), and fluff-piece articles that don’t say anything are just tool time. Working to minimize the time our user spends on these elements will only improve her overall experience, making her more likely to come back to the site and recommend it to her friends.

Do you know what parts of your design are tool time elements? Could you reduce or eliminate these elements without reducing the quality of the user’s results? Do you know where goal time comes in? Could you find ways to increase the user’s exposure to this part of the experience?

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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