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

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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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.

Spring Forward! March 8, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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Ah, you can tell the seasons are changing.  Temperatures are rising, trees are budding, and most important of all, we have to set all our clocks forward one hour.  It is time for the biannual time shift known as Daylight Savings Time.

From an IT perspective, DST is just an irritant.  So many systems, so many clocks, so many potential job streams to be broken.  In the spring, jobs scheduled between 2 and 3 AM don’t run; in the fall, they all run twice.  Somewhere, some system will not change, and everything will be off by an hour until some attentive user calls the support desk.  Last year, the great DST Change that mandated that we start earlier and end later just about killed every Exchange mail administrator in the United States.  Even now, the echoes of that debacle show up in weird time-shifted appointments that linger from late last March.

Indiana has always been held in special regard in the IT world, due to their truculent insistence on not converting to DST like the rest of us.  How many hours of development and testing has been dedicated to accommodating 77 counties in Indiana?  We’ll never know.

Fortunately, these counties have allowed us to learn something I suspected all along: DST wastes energy.  Long advertised as an energy-saving initiative, DST actually causes people to use more energy than Standard Time.

In 2006, these rogue counties in Indiana finally threw in the towel and converted to DST with the rest of us.  This provided a golden opportunity to study their energy usage and compare it to previous, non-DST usage patterns.  The final result: DST uses 4% more energy that standard time.  As reported by the Wall Street Journal, here’s why:

  • People run their air conditioning more in the evening when it is warmer
  • People run their heat in the morning, when they get up in the cooler early hours
  • Heating and cooling costs more than offset the saved lighting costs in the evening

This last bullet is my favorite.  It surprises a lot of researchers that it costs more to heat and cool a house than it does to illuminate it.  (This does not surprise those of us who pay the bills).

In the end, affected Indiana families paid $8.6 million more in energy costs due to the change.  Their US Representative, Julia Carson, had promised $7 million in savings.  That’s a net loss of $15.6 million, not including the conversion costs for businesses who had to reprogram every device they ever owned since the dawn of computing.

In the end, this serves to reinforce two important lessons:

  • The Law of Unintended Consequences never fails to be applied
  • The government never improves anything it touches

Still, there is a light at the end of this tunnel.  If nothing else, that extra hour of daylight we get from DST should allow us to grow more corn, producing more ethanol to eliminate our dependence on foreign oil!