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It is common for a clock to be placed somewhere on the desktop - in Windows, it is on the taskbar.

But why do designers do this? It makes sense on a phone, for example, but when on a computer, I believe that most people have a clock within their vision or reach already. Many people wear watches. So why do we still have clocks on the modern desktop?

Edit: People, I would like to clarify that I am not dumb. I know clocks tell the time. I was looking for the impact that the small digital clock can have on a user, and why its significant to the workflow of a user.

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If many people wear watches, why do they need a clock on their phones but not on their desktop? –  Marjan Venema Aug 23 '13 at 11:07
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Actually, I mostly use the desktop clock for telling time. If my computer is off, i use my phone, but that's less common. –  Inca Aug 23 '13 at 11:27
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I do not believe that most people have a clock within their vision or reach already. For example, based on my own experience, I think that most people do not wear a watch. –  Bennett McElwee Aug 23 '13 at 11:45
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Why would I have a clock or a watch (devices that only give me one piece of data) when I can get the time as well as any other data I want from my computer or my phone? –  Jeanne Pindar Aug 23 '13 at 12:50
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Why do you still have a clock on your traditional desktop when there is one on your computer desktop? Your traditional clock needs fixing, whereas the computer one gets precise down-to-the-second time via NTP and corrects itself. –  Kaz Aug 23 '13 at 15:01

8 Answers 8

up vote 217 down vote accepted

Persona

Meet Carlos.

A photo of a person on his desk

He is an academic course-coordinator in a university. He is a very busy man who spends most of the day in front of his computer.

User Observation

As Carlos goes on about his daily tasks, every half an hour or so he checks the time. Reasons vary:

  • How long has he got before the 11:00 meeting?
  • How long before lunch time?
  • How long has he been replying to emails?
  • How long before I go home?

In the specific day you observed Carlos, he checked the time 21 times. He spent 6 hours and 42 minutes in front of his computer screen.

As you observe Carlos, you see that in order to check the time he uses his iPhone instead of his watch. When asked why he replies:

"Because my iPhone clock is automatically synced to a time server and thus it is more accurate than my watch."

You further observe that behind Carlos there's a wall clock stuck on 2:40. You ask Carlos why the clock isn't working.

"It ran out of batteries 2 weeks ago and no one is asked to replace them."

A Revolutionary Design

And then you have a moment of enlightenment:

How about we save Carlos the need to reach his pocket, fetch the phone, look at the time and put the phone back in his pocket. How about:

  • We provide Carlos with a small clock in the top bar of his screen (which he looks at most of the day anyway), so he only needs to move his eyes to see the time?
  • Not only this, but the desktop clock will also be synced to a time server (the machine is connected to the internet anyway), providing Carlos with the most accurate time.
  • In addition, how about clicking on the clock will reveal date information (which Carlos checks less regularly)?

You propose it to Carlos and he thinks it is a genius idea. He goes about how it can save the need to buy, maintain (batteries), and calibrate wall clocks on all rooms which have computers in them.

This is User Centred Design.

Conclusion

People often check the time (user need), and if in front of a computer (context), a small clock on the screen (design solution) is the quickest and most accurate way for them to do so.

Run an observation on many different personas and you'll find the same applies.

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Wow. What a way to answer this question. Great show of how to turn someone/something headed in the wrong direction around. –  Marjan Venema Aug 23 '13 at 13:23
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Great answer. My answer would have simply been "to check the time". ;) –  Bart Gijssens Aug 23 '13 at 13:35
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@Izhaki Nailed It! –  nate Aug 23 '13 at 16:21
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@Izhaki - One of the biggest flaws in most UX design is the concept that "other people operate the same way I do"/"I operate the best way, other people should copy me" This answer is a great way to not only point that out - but promote using personas in UX design, and lay out a great exercise pattern for people learning UX design. Great job Izhaki! –  Don Nickel Aug 23 '13 at 16:23
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Carlos may not be the most interesting man in the world, but when he needs to check the time, he uses his Computer Desktop. –  EtherDragon Aug 23 '13 at 18:08

There is a clock on the desktop so that people can tell the time!

This is the same reason there is a clock on my mobile phone, wireless phone, oven, microwave oven, car, weather station and iPod. They have clocks because a clock is useful and easy to implement.

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I wear a wristwatch, yet still find myself using the desktop clock when I'm at my workstation. I think it's easier -eye movement without wrist movement. –  Michael Zuschlag Aug 23 '13 at 13:14
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The clock on my Microwave is normally used to estimate when the last power outage ended. It last had an approximately correct time about 6 years ago following a brief outage near midnight. –  Dan Neely Aug 26 '13 at 19:18
    
-1 This is a pretty poor answer for a User Interface discussion thread. The OP asked clear legit UI related questions and you failed to address a single one of them. –  chaiguy Aug 29 '13 at 20:21
    
@chaiguy, sorry you didn't find the answer helpful. Remember that a simple answer can still be a good answer. (Though Izhaki has gone to the other extreme in his excellent answer.) The OP actually only asked one question, based on two stated premises. I addressed the main premise (about wristwatches) in a comment, and answered the question here. –  Bennett McElwee Aug 31 '13 at 12:03
    
@chaiguy this is exactly the answer. The clear legit UI reason is that it is the simplest way to fulfil a user need. It is the watch, deskclock, wallclock, phone, etc that is superflous rather than the clock in your primary workspace ie. the desktop in this instance. –  JamesRyan Feb 11 at 12:50

The desktop clock, or for that matter even the calendar, are primarily meant as a reflection of the date/time that the system is currently following.

The user of the system obviously knows the date/time (from his own watch or phone or otherwise), but he also expects to be reassured that the system he's working on is following the same date/time. For instance, if he is to schedule a task, say at 10PM on a particular date, how can he be sure that the system will execute that task at exactly 10PM of that date? The only way then would be to have the system's time synchronized to his own sense of time, and have it visible and available at all time for confirmation and surety.

Moreover, it is becoming increasing common to have offices and workspaces spread globally across various time zones. To have one watch for each timezone is completely infeasible, and it is normal for users to often have multiple clocks on their desktops instead -- these are extremely handy when having to schedule meetings or appointments for calls between two parties over different time zones.

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Also a perfectly sensible control to set the system time. Assuming the person does somehow discover an incorrect time from a scheduling app or file timestamps, it'll be a big pain to search through a mass of unfamiliar control panels to fix it. –  Michael Zuschlag Aug 23 '13 at 13:19
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Exactly. IT professionals and developers need to know that the system clock is set properly or their applications won't work properly. –  alord1689 Aug 28 '13 at 0:42

I'm currently playing arround with extra desktops on windows, and I have to say that I miss the clock there.

I suggest that you test it yourself: Disable the clock in the taskbar. Each time you'll look to it, you will miss it.

A good UX design involves providing the nessecary information to the user without great effort.
The clock can be such a nessecary information, so better provide it.
Most other information is situational or not needed (like the network connectivity when not using wifi on a mobile device), so only show this if it does not match the usual state.

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There are some tools that add a functioning taskbar to non-primary monitors. I use one called "Actual Multiple Monitors" and, since I don't need as much space on the secondary monitor, extend the taskbar on it so that the clock displays the day and date as well as the time (which I do need to check sometimes). Now checking the time is only an eye movement regardless of which monitor I'm looking at, and checking the date is (at most) a short head movement. –  nmclean Aug 24 '13 at 16:42

Although some great responses have already been provided, let me give one of the reasons I like having the clock visible from the desktop: I can see whether my computer is being ungodly slow or if its actually frozen. Its kind of a unique reason and less valid than it was 10 years ago, but when doing memory intensive work sometimes the computer can become momentarily unresponsive. However, if the clock still displays the correct time then I know the computer is simply still processing the last commands and it will become "unfrozen" when those commands are complete.

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even ten years ago, if you were waiting to see if the minutes changed on your desktop clock to see if your computer was frozen, you were doing it wrong. –  ataulm Aug 23 '13 at 14:01
    
Hey when you're crunching big numbers you can expect the wheel to spin for awhile sometimes. At least now I can get away with playing music in the background so now I know something is wrong if the music stops. –  user12202013 Aug 23 '13 at 14:10
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@ataulm: plenty of OS clocks display (or at least can be set to display) seconds, not just minutes; and too I keep mine set to display seconds for exactly this reason. –  PLL Aug 24 '13 at 14:37
    
fair enough, but it doesn't tell you when the app has frozen, and your OS is happily chugging along. –  ataulm Aug 24 '13 at 14:57
    
@ataulm yes and that is the point of the check –  Mark Aug 24 '13 at 21:13

Some addition to above great answers.

The clock in Windows is put in right down corner, so it's easy to find it. When somebody says me by phone that some events will occur eg. on September 26th, I quickly move my pointer to left bottom part of the screen, double click to open the calendar, change current month to September and see that September 26th occurs on... wait a second... click-click... click... click... ...occurs on Thursday.

The functionality of checking weekdays is for me very important too.

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My objections to your assumptions are as follows:

  • The only other time display I have available at a glance from my desk at work is on the IP phone next to it.
  • I look at my desktop pretty much all day. I don't stare at my phone (desk or mobile).
  • The time display on my computer is synchronized with all other computers on my company's WAN through an NTP server, and so is within a second of everyone else's desktop clock throughout the office. The desk phone clock gets the same updates, but not any of the wall clocks (and as I said there's not one in view from my desk).
  • The computer time display shows the definitive time for the office, around which meetings and appointments are scheduled. I receive reminders on my phone as well as my desktop, but they're within a second or two of each other.
  • I don't wear a watch, because there are many other convenient time displays in my daily environment, including the phone in my pocket and the computer at which I sit. Heck, even my TV's DVR at home has a well-synchronized clock (for good reason).
  • With almost every computer time display using a synchronization scheme that will place them within a few seconds of any other clock in the same time zone, and all based on either an atomic clock or the adjusted UT0 standard which are again very close together, there's no sense in limiting the number of places from which you could get the time, and similarly very little sense in trusting a $5 wall clock and its similarly-inexpensive quartz oscillator.
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To know the computer clock is in time.

You may not use it for yourself, but a lot of applications depend on it and they start acting unexpectedly if the time is wrong. The secondary usage of the clock is to provide easy access to change the date/time if it's wrong. You don't need to look where to change it, a simple click on the clock will open you controls to do that.

In addition to that, I use it to check the time. Since it's always on screen, it's much more convenient for me to look at it than reach for my phone. And I do not wear a watch. It's in fact very rare these days that anyone do. At least here in Finland.

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While this is somewhat significant for sys admins and programmers I can't imagine this was the intended use case for sticking the clock on ALL desktops, nor can I imagine it's the predominant use case. Most people just want and use the clock for the time. –  Ben Brocka Aug 24 '13 at 16:36
    
@BenBrocka keep in mind the clock at least in Windows world had been added to the desktop in Windows 95 in August 1995. While NTP (Network Time Protocol) was introduced back in 1985, the first Windows version to be released with Windows Time Service (w32time) which had the ability to sync it's clock to an NTP server was Windows 2000. Back in 1995, e-mail and calendars had become a major player in school and enterprise networks. Receiving e-mails and having appointments in wrong date/time was an issue. Introducing a clock that a user can manage, reduced calls to help desk significantly. –  Jani Hyytiäinen Aug 25 '13 at 8:24

protected by Ben Brocka Aug 23 '13 at 13:50

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