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At The Tone, The Time Will Be… January 16, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
Tags: , ,

When it comes to user interface pet peeves, I don’t just have a few pets, I have a whole zoo.  Today, let’s talk about time zones.

Many, many web sites want to know your time zone so they can correctly send you messages or set appointments or reminders.  Fair enough.  But the manner in which they ask for your time zone leaves a lot to be desired.

One long-standing tradition involves providing a pull-down menu with every time zone in the world, starting with Greenwich, England and heading east or west.  Sometimes the list includes the official names of the zones, which may help, but often just lists the offset (in hours) from the time in Greenwich.  This is sometimes known as “Zulu” time or the increasingly common “UTC,” which is the French acronym (acronym Français?) for Universal Coordinated Time.  This is so handy: ask your Mom if she is in UTC-4 or UTC-5 next time you chat.  I’m sure she’ll know in a heartbeat.

Occasionally the list presents you with major cities in each time zone.  Presumably, you pick a big city near you and your time zone is set to match.  Why, then, do they list several cities in each zone?  Atlanta, New York, and Washington, DC, are all in the Eastern Time Zone (UTC-5, duh).  Why three choices?  Are we catering to the city slickers but rebuffing small-town America?  Seems like someone is going to get offended, somehow.  And then, you need that special time zone for Indiana, or at least you did until this year, and parts of New Mexico, I think.

You might also get prompted for Daylight Savings Time.  I always read too much into this question.  Are they asking if my locale use DST in general, or if it is in effect right now?  In the summer, the safe answer is always “yes,” but in the winter you are rolling the dice, my friend.

I’ve seen lots of interfaces for setting the time zone, and they all violate the important rules of user interfaces: they require too much geeky user knowledge, they are hard to understand, and they make the user do more work than the computer.

All but one, that is.  I recently came across a delightfully elegant interface that asks one simple question of the user: “What is your current time right now?”  It then presents a pull-down menu with the current time in every time zone.  The user just finds the time that is closest to their current time (usually within a few minutes either way) and the computer figures out the rest!  What a concept!  Gather one bit of trivial data from the user and do the heavy lifting to compute UTC offset, look up DST rules for that zone, and set the time zone accordingly.

Kudos to the developer!  There is always a better way that respects the user and exploits the computer, if we only work hard enough to find it.  Every aspect of every user interface should be this elegant and clever.


1. John Baker - January 16, 2009

OK. How about the zillion times you have to fill in the address for something and first you have to labor through a pull down for your state…easy if you live in Alabama but us poor people from North Carolina seem to scroll for ages. AND then it asks for your Zip Code… what if you first put in the ZIP and it could figure out what state you live in?

2. Chuck Musciano - January 20, 2009

This drives me crazy as well. My other peeve is asking you to choose your country and then presenting an alphabetical list of every country on earth. Working your way down to “United States” is annoying, and even pressing “U” to get there forces you to work your way through Uganda and United Arab Emirates to get to the US.

I have seen some sites start to filter more common choices (US, UK) to the top of these lists, followed by the alphabetical remainder, which I think makes a lot more sense.

3. Bill Petro - January 21, 2009

Don’t let it be said that some countries are more important than others. We’re all equal, it’s just that “U” are more equal than others 🙂

4. Chuck Musciano - January 21, 2009

I’d be happy to discover that web sites in the .ug domain (for Uganda) list Uganda first, and the US way down the list. It’s all about efficiency and convenience, not about driving users nuts in the name of “equality.”

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