Dividing User Time Between Goal And Tool

Jared Spool

April 20th, 2006

Thanks to Kate for translating this post to Czech.

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 presentation’s content, they are investing in goal time. The more goal time they can invest in, the better the quality their result.

(Of course, I don’t think my sixteen-year-old son could create a presentation on Information Scent as well as I could just because I have more skills, knowledge, and experience at doing these things. However, let’s assume, for purposes of this posting, that we’re well within our user’s upper limits.)

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 any 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 in her twenties visiting a web site 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 the helpful articles is definitely goal time. If the articles are informative and well written, the more time she spends, the more informed she’ll become. 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?

5 Responses to “Dividing User Time Between Goal And Tool”

  1. UIE Brain Sparks » Blog Archive » Eyetracking: Worth The Expense? Says:

    [...] Third, they reduce the amount of time you actually collect data from your users. Getting a participant set up and calibrated with the device can take time away from learning about your design. The most valuable piece of any usability test is the time the participant is interacting with your design, not setting up the measurement equipment. What’s worse is many devices lose calibration quickly, forcing the test to stop and the participant to spend more time futzing with recalibrating. This tool time is distracting and not adding to the session’s value. [...]

  2. Tool Time vs. Goal Time, or, the Fallacy of the Microsoft Windows Phone 7 « Nikki Chau Says:

    [...] For a more in depth discussion of tool time and goal time, check out ┬áJared Spool’s article: Dividing User Time between Tool and Goal. Really. Now this, is what I call Quality Time October 12th, 2010 | Tags: Evo, goal time, iPhone, [...]

  3. Madera Labs | Five Things Every Developer Should Understand About UX Says:

    [...] Spool talks about goal time vs. tool time in this article, and it’s a great read for anyone putting together an interactive experience. Goal time is [...]

  4. links for 2011-08-22 | the reX-Files Says:

    [...] Dividing User Time Between Goal And Tool ┬╗ UIE Brain Sparks Designers have to worry about two types of time their user spends interacting with their design: Tool Time and Goal Time. (tags: developers UX design goals) [...]

  5. Designing Sequences not Stills | The Intercom Blog Says:

    [...] the time your users spend with your software into goal time and tool time. Goal time is time spent by the user working directly towards the result they [...]

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