The Science of Designing Hot, New Products for Better Time Management

art pallette, brushes with easelMany software and hardware designers are hoping to hit it rich by replacing the top time management apps: Outlook, Google and Lotus. These global products account for billions of users which means that replacing them isn’t easy.

Much of the challenge boils down to replacing habits users employ every day in their struggle to be productive. It’s a fact many designers discover late in their development cycle, to their detriment. How can they hit their goal of becoming the next great thing, when existing products are already shaping users’ practices?

The facts are clear. Designers of time management applications have a tremendous effect on their users’ habits. Since the advent of email over 20 years ago, they have altered the behavior of millions. The result is that they have had an outsize (and perhaps unintended) effect on worker productivity.

Yet, even the most popular program for managing tasks and calendars – Microsoft Outlook – is used grudgingly. It’s an engineer’s dream with tons of bells and whistles, but there is hardly a rabid fan-base of users who love the design of the product. Its dominance comes from its proximity to Outlook’s email program within Microsoft Office, rather than from its functionality, ease-of-use or elegance.

Perhaps the same could be said of time management products developed by Google and Lotus. In all these cases ( according to research outlined in my book, Perfect Time-Based Productivity) email apps were meant to be the centerpiece. Time management apps such as calendars and task managers, were included as after-thoughts. Ugly step-children.

Many designers chafe at these programs outdated interfaces and dream of supplanting them. As a result, there are over hundreds of task and calendar apps on the web, and in iPhone and Android stores, all hoping to improve existing designs.

There’s no doubt they are built by designers who are highly motivated.

But they all appear to be missing the mark. Outlook was released in the mid 1990’s and has never lost its place as the most popular time management program for the desktop. Google’s products became popular because Gmail was a well-designed, web-based email client. It didn’t happen because its time management apps were any good.

It’s easy, therefore, for a designer of time management apps to get jazzed by a cool idea and imagine what it would be like to grab even a small piece of a very large pie. By the end of 2015, the Radicati Group estimates that there will be over 4 billion email users. According to recent research of small business owners, some 82% will also use a task or calendar app. This majority translates into big revenue potential.

Some designers believe that people don’t migrate to new apps because they lack cool features. Recently, some have integrated GPS capabilities into their programs, so a smartphone can remind the user when, for example, they are near to a grocery store so they can pick up the milk.

Is their hypothesis correct? Would users flock to their apps because they include a cool new feature?

To understand why they are wrong, we need to take a deeper dive than the average designer takes, because it’s easy to become confused when designing apps for this particular market. Why? Well, for example, for starters, there’s no such thing as “time management.”

Why time management is impossible

It turns out that the phrase “time management” is a misnomer. According to Earl Nightingale, “You don’t manage time, you manage activities.” He’s backed up by Dr. Brigitte Claessens, perhaps, the foremost researcher in the field in this new millennium. She wrote, “Time cannot be managed in any sense.” At 2Time Labs, where I work, we have a team currently studying this question. It might be the first time it’s being tackled in a systematic way, accounting for recent findings in psychology, quantum physics, philosophy and anthropology. Our early results back up their statements.

Yet, even though time cannot be managed, it can certainly be wasted. Any app that can help users waste less time would be an instant hit.

The remedy, however, is not time management. To discover a useful answer, designers of productivity apps must do a some things that all innovators of new products, services and apps must do. They must dig deep into academic research, focus on shaping current habits and pull information from a variety of fields.

1. Dig Deeper into the Research

Like their counterparts in other fields, designers need to go past popular, but trivial answers. For example, some bloggers argue that the replacement for time management should be “self-management.” This all too-obvious answer, which happens to be true, isn’t useful. Every kind of management known to mankind includes an element of self-management. You can’t study “self-management” with the intent of designing a specific product.

A far better substitute involves a new definition discovered at 2Time Labs: a “time demand.” It is defined as “an internal, individual commitment to complete an action in the future”. It happens to be an example of what researchers call a “psychological object,” named as a “conscious intention” by Drs. Wood and Oullette.

According to the research outlined in my book, human beings teach themselves to manipulate time demands starting in adolescence. We share a similar learning path. After discovering the existence of time at the approximate age of eight or nine, we realize that keeping time demands alive is critical to reaching our goals, big and small.

As adults, things have changed. Modern technology allows us to create many more time demands than ever before, triggered by an explosion in information. Potential time demands sit in an increasing number of places in the life of today’s professionals. They can be found in email, on written to-do lists, in electronic task lists, on calendars, in voicemail, in DM’s on Twitter to name a few sources, and there are more new locations being added each day.

One reason all time management apps look the same is because they don’t start with the basic idea of a time demand. Instead, perhaps confused by ill-defined “time management”, they only look for inspiration to other, existing products. The result is that they perform (more or less) the same functions, with little variation and no real innovation. In this field, there have been no breakthroughs since Outlook was released to the public.

A skillful designer should start by asking “What are the habits people currently use to manage time demands? What are the obstacles? How is life making time demand management more difficult? How can I help users turn off the spigot at will, if time demands are something they create without knowing it?”

These question can help a designer get closer to creating a breakthrough product. It’s impossible to arrive at this point following the conventional wisdom, or just by adding a single feature.

2. Shaping Current Habits, Not Replacing Them

Most books and classes in time management present long lists of new practices for users to undertake in order to be productive. This style of teaching often fails because authors and trainers ignore the fact that functioning adults already have their own, self-taught methods for manipulating time demands.

Plus, they didn’t learn them yesterday: as I mentioned before, they learned these methods in adolescence, putting together a system of habits, practices and rituals. Over years, or decades, they have used this system to achieve every success in life.

Along the way, they picked up helpful software, gadgets and services, yet there are millions who still use the paper and pencil techniques they learned when they were 12.

Designers shouldn’t make the same mistake – they need to understand what’s called andragogy: the kind of teaching which works for adults. One important difference is that adults approach a learning opportunity with knowledge and systems already in place – they aren’t blank canvases.

Therefore, assuming that it’s easy for an adult to unlearn an old habit, while learning a new one, is a major mistake. For example, a user who decides to change calendar apps must first unlearn old habits, learn new ones and simultaneously ensure that their reminder to pick up the milk tonight doesn’t fall through the cracks. It’s a tough, real-time change management problem.

A designer who understands andragogy can develop powerful products that don’t require steep learning curves. Obviously, a product that asks a user to change too many things at once is likely to be discarded.

For example, when I taught time management programs over a decade ago I noticed users struggling to implement a large number of newly learned behaviors. Now, using the principles of andragogy, I show users how to implement a planned, custom sequence of small changes lasting months and even years.

An example: Users hate to switch applications in order to use a task or calendar app. Most of their potential time demands arrive via email, and it’s often easier to manipulate these time demands using software that is bundled into their email clients. (As a side note, with the advent of social networks, this habit appears to be slowly changing and with it should come a fresh opportunity.)

3. Become Comfortable Mixing and Matching Ways of Thinking

One of the risks of relying too much on a single book, researcher or field of study is that it’s easy to get trapped into a simplistic line of thinking that’s far from reality. It’s critical that designers be flexible, able to move between schools of thought with ease, keeping uppermost the goal of finding solutions for users. That’s very different than trying to implement a single theory, no matter how good it seems.

For example, in time-based productivity, most of the research has been done by psychologists. Traditionally, they have focused on concepts like “perceived control of time” – a feeling of being on top of things. While this emotion is valid, and we all cherish it, studies show that there is little or no connection between this particular feeling and performance.

It turns out that the key to improved performance in manaing time demands lies in another field entirely – Business Process Management (BPM). It was popularized in the 1990’s by industrial experts like W. E. Deming and Michael Hammer, who focused on the movement of physical objects or information through factories, distribution systems and offices.

Now, imagine their principles being applied to the way we manipulate time demands, in which we use seven distinct actions. Specialists in BPM have probably never conceived of applying their expertise to psychological objects.

This combination of psychology and management doesn’t come from conventional wisdom, but it provides a better model of the everday actions people take. There’s even a term for this approach, as I recently discovered: “The Adjacent Possible.” It’s the notion that great design sometimes comes from combining insights lying in disjoint, but nearby fields of study. The amalgamation of ideas provides far better understanding of people’s current behaviors, which in turn points the way to better designs.

A designer who understands both worlds could, for example design breakthrough calendar software.

My research shows that the most effective type A individuals schedule the majority of their time in their calendars, including much of the time they spend alone. However, I have never seen software built for their purposes. All that exists are calendars built for appointments with other people. This group, which makes up some 50% of the population, includes many executives and entrepreneurs, or in other words, some of the most influential movers and shakers.


These three points show that, in time management, an opportunity exists for a radical new kind of product. Rather than ignore users’ current habit patterns, it would build on them. Discovering and understanding these habits is the avenue to creating superior value.

Also, revealing the underlying assumptions a designer is using is critical to creating a breakthrough product. This is especially true if better assumptions are available that can be used to better serve users.

These principles don’t only apply to time management, however. Anyone who attempts to design a product intended to shape user behavior must contend with current habits and seek to grow the limits of their own understanding. The promise of radical new products can inspire them to defy conventional wisdom and seek their own path to success.

P.S. If you are a developer of hot, warm or cold time management apps, hardware or software, spend a moment to join my mailing list or discussion group on Google+.