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I'm developing a Q&A product.

Answering form works like this:

  • Each question has 2 answer slots.

  • If you're writing an answer, you can take your time, but after a few seconds of not writing, a timer will start counting down (so you don't block the slot without giving an answer).

  • It will reset if you start writing again.

My problem is that if you show the timer from the beginning:

  1. it looks broken, because it's set on 20:00 and doesn't measure time
  2. users can feel rushed to write an answer and it might influence its quality.

On the other hand:

  1. If users doesn't know that they don't have infinite time, they can loose their slot unknowingly, when they go AFK for a few minutes. Should I care about such case? It's quite hard to measure if this is a common case.

How do you think I should go about it? A tooltip? Somehow showing that the time "froze"? Not showing it until the countdown starts?

  • I would find it a very annoying interface if there is a timeslot within which I have to write. Whats the goal of this product that you need a timeslot – Mervin Johnsingh Oct 13 '14 at 8:41
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    Would there only ever be one answer to a question? Why do you need to basically 'check it out' in order to provide an answer? Thinking of another Q&A product (Stack Exchange) there is no need to check out a question to answer it because there is no restriction on the number of answers that can be left. – JonW Oct 13 '14 at 8:44
  • usually there are a lot of users who want to answer these questions, and because there are only 2 slots (and it can't be changed - it's a very complex system) we can't let users who are not going to answer block them. As I said - if you're writing you can take your time. The timer starts counting down only when you're inactive and resets when you start again. – djilt Oct 13 '14 at 8:45
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I think that:

  • since for a "normally" working user (i.e. one that types in his/her answer without any major no-typing-breaks) there's no need to display anything (like you said, in this case, showing a non-counting counter would be just confusing) then, don't display anything

  • only show the counter when a no-typing break duration has been reached. This should be fairly simple, maybe a circle that diminishes (i.e. a "pie-chart" that loses slices, etc), eventually with a working senconds counter underneath that counts down. There's the "Attractive jQuery Circular Countdown Timer Plugin - TimeCircles" that does something like this:

enter image description here

Maybe to the side a message saying that "you should type in your answer in a timely fashion, or cancel it so that others can use the slot".

  • I think the most important rule to convey here is the one where the timer is reset if the user re-starts typing. The user, once shown a down-counting timer, should understand that once he's restarted typing, the counter is re-winded, he's not put in a race against time simply because of one typing break.

I think that once you get to this state (the counter was shown, hasn't counted down to 0 yet and user has restarted typing), you should do a simple, quick animation, showing that the counter is "re-winded" : if you display the seconds counting down, make them count back up to the initial value real quick, or if you use some visual aid to show the time trickling down, "revert" the animation to its initial state quickly, etc. Then leave it there for another second or two and then make it go away. I believe this give the right idea of "now that you've restarted typing, the counter has been reset and it won't be an issue unless you make another similar break, at which point it will start counting from the initial value, not continue from where it left off on your previous break"

  • Finally, I think that the only instance where the counter, once shown, should remain visible forever (i.e. until user manually dismisses it) it's when it has actually gotten down to 0. In this case the user may have actually been AFK, and he should see what has happen in the mean time when he returns
  • When I think of Tufte's data visualization, pie charts seems to be a very bad idea, and the modified pie charts even worser. I don't know why people are still using this in their countdown timers. Specially in TV shows these type of countdown timers are very common, maybe to save the TV screen. But still any modification in a pie chart is difficult to read and generally misleads. – steve Oct 14 '14 at 6:50
  • @steve, well, sice I have 0 education in UI/UX I'm empircally sure that you have a valid point. The piechart/dimisishing circle was just a proposition, I was making more of a point on why and how I think it should be displayed for this usecase. – Shivan Dragon Oct 14 '14 at 9:55
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The state you describe appears to happen when a user is away from keyboard or no longer actually doing something. What would be appropriate is to put a gray overlay over the screen/survey with a messagebox in the center, modal dialog. This will show a kind of disabled state and allows you to put a timer and explanation in it.

enter image description here

Something like "It appears you are no longer [ insert a good message here ]." "To allow other people to asnwer this survey we need to disconnect you in [ etc. etc. ]. "

The advantage is that the user will not be bothered with a timer when they are going through the survey as expected. Hence they won't feel rushed The small group of people that do go AFK will see why and still have a chance to respond.

  • That's more or less what i thought of. Right now timer shows only when user becomes inactive, and a popup is showed when he/she is running out of time (1 minute left). I was just worried, that if they don't know about time limit in general, what would be the consequences. – djilt Oct 13 '14 at 9:45
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    Since time is a technical constraint here, and not really an issue for your average user I would not show it. You want the user to focus on the questions, not having them trying to figure out as to why there is a timer on their screen. A good, well written, message when the user does go AFK is probably the better way to go. – GWv Oct 13 '14 at 9:56
  • I have one more question. Since sometimes (and i can't know how many times yet) this is triggered after every 30 seconds of being inactive, I was wondering - should I display a tip for ex. first 2 minutes, and then popup, or should I always use the popup? It may add additional complexity to the interaction, but on the other hand I feel, that even if we set inactivity timer to 1 minute, it will be too aggresive If displayed ex.3 times during answering. What do you think? – djilt Oct 15 '14 at 8:41
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    I don't understand your question completely but I think it kind of depends. A modal dialog is quite a heavy tool for displaying a message. If it happens to be that most of the users, every once in a while, get this message you should look for a more lightweight method or try and remove the necessity for it completely. Keep in mind that if you are doing a survey and most users get to see an error message most of them probably won't finish the survey and you will not get any significant results at all. – GWv Oct 15 '14 at 10:37
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To make user more perceptive of how time might work use something much more understandable yet not tangible to give exact measure. This will give them an idea that time is not infinite, and yet they won't be scared by numbers.

Countdowntimer

  • Are lots of the people you hang around scared by numbers? "Oh, I never drive. Too many numbers on the speed limit signs. And the street names! Must those be numbered, as well?!" – philipthegreat Oct 13 '14 at 15:27
  • Numbers are a lot "harsher" than a smoothly animated visual indicator. For a somewhat extreme example, compare an hourglass to a numerical timer showing microeconds ticking off faster than they can be read – Selali Adobor Oct 13 '14 at 19:37
  • @AssortedTrailmix Thanks! I think you explained it very well. :) – steve Oct 14 '14 at 6:44
  • @philipthegreat I think the second comment says it all. :) – steve Oct 14 '14 at 6:51
  • I was mostly joking. It depends heavily on the context. For example: estopwatch.net – philipthegreat Oct 14 '14 at 14:21
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Showing the time remaining should and as well shouldn't affect the user. It must remind the user about the time and that it for which the input area where the user is writing can be highlighted with a mild red color to wake him/her up. As the color fades a small sandclock/digital time remaining can be indicated at the top.

This can also be like the color shrinking to the top left where the time ticks (similar to the minimize style in MAC- the genie effect). Hope this helps. Thank you

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The way I see it is that you are trying to solve two problems:

  1. Tell the user not to dilly-dally with the survey but don't distract them
  2. When appropriate, let them know they are running out of time

Issue #1 possible solution

At the start of the survey, simply have a message stating that "Please note that after 20 minutes of inactivity your session will be terminated so that other people may do this survey, thank you."

Issue #2 possible solution

Upon reaching a threshold of 1 minute or 5 minutes of inactivity (your choice) remaining, show a pop-up window (modal window) which states "Inactivity Warning: You have been inactive for 15 minutes, this session will terminate in 5:00 minutes" and show the timer counting down in seconds. Once it reaches zero then give them whatever options you need to give them such as "Restart survey", "Go back to X page", etc... Give them a distinct choice and don't just leave them hanging with a "session expired" message.

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I like MonkeyZeus starting message about freeing the slot for other people to use it.
As of he countdown, IMO it's annoying for the users that will feel pressed and won't enter the best data they can.
I like the ATM method, asking "Do you need more time?" after a TBD while.
One advantage of this approach is that slow users have already experimented in in the ATMs and know how it works.
If possible, collect statistics on how long does it take for the users, in average, to fill the data. Then you will know by sure the level of concern that's appropriate for this issue.

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