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Bend your brain and enter the experience-time continuum

Will your relationship stand the test of time?

Not that relationship. (Although, I wish you well.) I’m talking about the relationship you have with your customers.

And if you’re thinking of “time” as purely longevity, think again, because some say the future of business depends on a new definition.

We talk an awful lot about time—this one unit of measurement. We organize our lives in decades of work experience, years married, ages of children, and whatever age-appropriate milestone those children reached since we last talked. We count down our years to retirement and our days to vacation. We self-place (and place others) definitively on the punctual

We talk an awful lot about time—this one unit of measurement. We organize our lives in decades of work experience, years married, ages of children, and whatever age-appropriate milestone those children reached since we last talked.

As descriptive and powerful a unit of measure it can be, when’s the last time you stopped and thought about the impact of time on your relationships with customers?

Our changing relationship with time

Enter Christine Todorovich, an interaction designer and Principal Design Director at frog. Todorovich helps companies of all sizes, across industries, develop user experiences that take the digital and physical worlds into account. She’s designed everything from apps to robotics to enterprise software.

“I think time is a defining element of any relationship, so we should absolutely consider its impact,” says Todorovich. “For example, through the design of customer experiences, we can leverage time to prompt celebration by providing moments of reflection. We can reduce anxiety by showing customers a prediction of what lies ahead of them. And we can build trust, one of the most important ingredients of any healthy and rewarding relationship, by providing a consistent pattern of experience over time.”

Time has always been a key component of the business-to-consumer relationship. A product was good if it lasted a long time. A product was not good if it fell apart on you within a month of buying it. Even with planned obsolescence, we still expect cars and computers to last “a while” before conking out on us—or becoming too unfashionable to bear. A customer was considered loyal solely in terms of how much time had gone by since their first purchase. Services, from checkout at the grocery store to customer service interactions on the phone,

But these metrics are becoming more obsolete and simplistic. As the buying public increasingly prioritizes high-quality experiences over tangibles (even when they are buying tangibles), so, too, shifts our definitions of time and money well spent. A New York Times piece, citing findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says that spending money to save time may even make us happier.

As the buying public increasingly prioritizes high-quality experiences over tangibles (even when they are buying tangibles), so, too, shifts our definitions of time and money well spent.

Form follows emotion

It’s no longer solely about how long something lasts. Those in the business of making “stuff” have realized this, attempting to zero in on what makes someone emotionally connected to a thing. More often than not, though, that question is asked after something has been designed instead of before. Todorovich follows the words of Hartmut Esslinger, industrial designer and frog’s founder, known for the mantra: “form follows emotion.”

“I interpret this as: it’s not only ‘stuff’ we should be designing, but also the relationship between people and stuff,” Todorovich said. “He was ahead of his time, as this is still relevant to the challenges we design for today. In the same way that stuff is made of plastic and pixels, the fabric of emotion and relationships is time. We should consider both, and let emotion take the lead.”

Bending our brains to consider the fourth dimension in this way may feel like being in the most head-swirling parts of The Matrix. Still, doing so may ground businesses across the board as they dip toes into various technological innovations and spend serious time and budget on customer experience: which is at once ephemeral and evergreen.

“There’s always been a correlation between technology and the human experience of time,” Todorovich says. “For example, the advent of the train led to the emergence of time zones and watches. But today’s innovation is transforming our experience of time in new and unexpected ways.”

All the feels of time

Digital technology, Todorovich says, amplifies the relationship between customers and companies because it reduces the distances between the two. Not in space, she notes, but in time: by increasing immediacy. Furthermore, digital customer experiences have also helped the difference between what Todorovich calls “real” time and felt time, both of which have design implications.

Basically, it’s not just about the length of your wait; it’s about how well your emotions were managed while you waited. After all, the fact that the restaurant doesn’t have record of a reservation you made months ago stings a lot less when free appetizers and a glass of wine are sent your way.

Think also of user experiences, which Todorovich says are always playing out over time. Time, through that lens, becomes a formal design element, up there with color or form. In this way, it becomes a North Star for the person doing the designing. Experience, in many ways, comes down to the overlooked “spaces in between,” ensuring we are designing a seamless experience instead of what Todorovich describes as a fragmented series of moments.

Experience, in many ways, comes down to the overlooked “spaces in between,” ensuring we are designing a seamless experience instead of a fragmented series of moments.

Consider, for example, making time a core part of your value proposition, as Snapchat and Instagram Stories have attempted to do, Todorovich recommends. As is the case with both, the fleetingness of a thing can make it desirable—and, in turn, gives it value.

It doesn’t last forever

Todorovich cites musician Jason Isbell as an example: “His new album has a song about this..the idea that something is rare, not in quantity like a diamond, but in duration; in other words, [the fact that] it won’t last forever is what makes it worth loving.”

Again, Todorovich says, it goes back to using time to creating an emotional connection between customers and the product,

“[Time] is so deeply tied to emotional dimensions of being human,” Todorovich says, explaining the draw of time as a lens through which to approach design. In In Search of Time: The History, Physics, and Philosophy of Time, Dan Falk writes, 'To be human is to be aware of the passage of time; no concept lies closer to the core of our consciousness.' As a designer, I don’t just want to make something that is functional and beautiful, I want my work to resonate emotionally and be a conduit for relationships.”

Tara Ramroop is a content marketing manager at Zendesk and frequent contributor to Relate. A loquacious Libra lady of letters, she firmly believes the craft of storytelling makes the world a more understanding and, well, relatable place. A Bay Area native, English degree be damned, she has no qualms about saying or writing "hella." Follow her visual stories and occasionally cheeky captions on Instagram @roopisonfire.

Original illustration by Andrea Mongia.