A web application lets the user browse its screens for future or past months. The time period the user is currently viewing follows the user through every screen of the system. But users can be logged in for a month or more. After a certain period of inactivity, we will prompt the user:

You were viewing November 2008 when you last clicked. Want to view the current (default) time period instead?

How long between user clicks should we wait to show this message? I'm guessing somewhere between 30 minutes and 3 hours most people will forget what they were doing, but I'd love to have some data, or someone's experience to base it on.

Other suggestions related to this issue?

  • Depends on what they are working on. Apparently there is research around how much people can remember based on the type of information they are processing. If you look for the original paper about the so called 'magic number 7' (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…) it will give you some interesting insights.
    – Michael Lai
    Jul 3, 2014 at 4:06

3 Answers 3


If this is an application people will use more than twice in any given (short time period x 2) without changing these notifications will become extremely annoying. It's easy to think little reminders are helpful, but in reality unless they are very rare and only for significant events, they're just plain annoying. Remember Clippy? Never forget Clippy; "helpful" turns into "I HATE THAT $#%^ING PAPERCLIP" in only a couple of failed attempts at "helpful" actions.

Additionally, short term memory's temporal length is not well defined and varies significantly (from 30 seconds to 24 hours depending on situation and definition). Whether you remember depends very very much on whether you focus on/repeat/generally try to remember whatever information is in short term memory. And a switch back to the context may immediately jar "lost" memory--or it may not. You can't depend on timing here.

So instead of using a notification and/or basing this on how long they've been away from the computer, make it easy to find contextual information. Leave the current working context clearly labeled in the same place on each page, and make it easy to get back to the "default" view (if it's a common action) like this:


download bmml source – Wireframes created with Balsamiq Mockups

Or this:


download bmml source

A simple navigational element like a bar at the top of the screen can provide all the information you need to keep your place (and you don't always have to be idle for 30 minutes to forget where you are). Windows Explorer is a great example of this:

enter image description here

I get back to my computer, I can easily see where I left off. There's no chance your timing is off, since the element is always there; you don't need to guess at when I'll have forgotten the context. And perhaps even more importantly, the navigational aspect means it's useful even if I haven't forgotten what time I'm in, maybe I just want to go back to select a different time/directory/context.

  • Great ideas! There is already a hierarchy of information that they browse through, and this is reflected in the indented vertical breadcrumbs: great-grandpa: grand-parent: parent... 1-10 levels deep. The time period is like a second dimension on top of that. Not sure how I'd incorporate your idea within the existing breadcrumb hierarchy. Sep 6, 2012 at 21:43
  • Also there are other session attributes: what company they are viewing, whether they are surfing in continuous-improvement mode, or yearly-goal mode, etc. I'm thinking of using the usual message area to respond to the first click - remember, the browser may have been closed before they return. Sep 6, 2012 at 21:45
  • Interesting you put the time period at the top of the breadcrumbs. We had it in the screen title, but it gets lost there AND obscures the title. It always shows in the left-hand navigation, but maybe should move from screen title to top breadcrumb. I wish I could vote for your answer several times just for that! P.S. Die clippy die! Sep 6, 2012 at 21:52
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    @GlenPeterson I just imagine the time being the "root" of the thing, since you presumably don't reselect time every section (which would make time a subsection of that section). They're just examples though, since I don't know the structure of your app
    – Ben Brocka
    Sep 6, 2012 at 21:54

"I'd love to have some data" good, so don't forget the instrumentation when you put this together. I think it's safe to assume after 30 minutes they were doing something else and should not be put out by having the message, moreover it may enhance usability when your users see the message it can create a sense that the system is still there. When someone leaves a screen to do something else and comes back to it looking identically, they may feel it died due to lack of attention. A message will however give them a sense that it knew they weren't paying attention, and is now ready for them to interact with it again.


Assume the shortest possible attention span.

Popups are fine, but there should be some easy way to bring them back on the screen if they are relevant very long after you first flash them to the user.

A more effective method might be to show this data on a status bar or fly out.

For some heavy multitaskers, 30 minutes will be too long.

  • 2
    Popups are absolutely not fine in this (or most any) context. A quiet, non-modal status bar at most would be good.
    – Ben Brocka
    Sep 6, 2012 at 21:19
  • Well, some people take a while to think and type into the system, or look at things in meetings and talk about them, so I'm sure it would be annoying after 10min. 20 min is gray area. Interesting that no-one is suggesting longer than 30min. Users complain about being logged out after an hour, but that may be a login thing, not an attention span thing. Sep 6, 2012 at 21:29

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