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I see more and more that messengers like Skype forego precise timestamps and display things like 'just now' for messages younger than 5 minutes.

The same holds true for YouTube videos, that show '1 week ago' or '1 month ago' in the video overview of a channel page.

I find this incredibly irritating. What value is this supposed to have?

  • does the stackexchange's "asked 18 mins ago" count? it's kind of precise and it has even a timestamp on hover - in UTC to avoid timezones... – Aprillion Jun 25 '16 at 11:27
  • A resolution in minutes is perfectly fine for me in this use case. But hiding minutes in a messaging app or a date in favor of a monthly or even yearly resolution makes no sense to me. When did GoT S3E5 come out? '5 years ago'. And S3E9? '5 years ago'. Gee Thanks. – Minix Jun 25 '16 at 14:09
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Compared to a time stamp, I'd have a 'an hour ago' any day. This works in timeframes that my mind can process easily. For example, a friend request on Facebook came in 3 days ago. This makes sense in that context. However, if I pushed my code to production and the log says '3 days ago', its useless as I might have pushed code to production a dozen times that day.

The 'ago' function is commonly used to avoid having to write a full timestamp, or not being able to simplify the key information from the timestamp that's needed in that specific context. For an example, here's a screenshot of a Slack message stating a time only along with the message (the date appears once at the top of the day):

enter image description here This is a lot better than any 'ago' function.

Precision, frequency and importance of the subject at hand can give you a fair idea about whether or not it should be an 'ago' function or a simple date and time.

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After a certain time, people stop counting days and count in weeks, then they count in months and then years.

For the same reason, if you meet someone after a while, you recollect how many months ago you met them before or years.

The brain doesn't calculate the days passed if you say '4 weeks ago'. But if you say '29 days ago', the brain needs to calculate to relate to how many weeks is that. Or similarly, '52 weeks ago' or 1 year ago.

Since we have all been taught to calculate with aspects of the larger format in order of Seconds, Minutes, Hours, Days, Weeks, Months, Years, Centuries and Decades, it is second nature to us. We remember 1 month = 30 days quicker than we would remember how many months 52 days would be.

While minutes under an hour are still okay, but when it crosses an hour mark, using minutes is meaningless since it increases the Cognitive Load on the user.

A lot of websites might even provide the exact date if you click on the '1 Week Ago' representation

With regards to Just Now, it also doesn't make sense to show seconds which increment every second. For example, 20 seconds ago. It will then need to be dynamic and counting forward. So, a good solution would be to have it as Just Now and make things simpler. After a couple of minutes, one could continue using the minutes passed format.

  • I disagree. If I look at a lot of items ordered by their creation time, then exactness does matter. What use are 10 videos all released '1 month ago'? With Skype, the most important messages are the most recent ones. If I want to know how many minutes ago I wrote something, why not tell me? I explicitly want the information, so why keep it from me? (I'm talking about the android app to be exact). – Minix Jun 25 '16 at 14:04
  • With that in mind, how exact would you want them to get? 'Posted on January 1, 2015, Sunday 12:15PM'? Generally, most people do not happen to care about the exact details. If the date does need to be exact, it leads to a problem of how granular should they get? There needs to be a compromise and the minimum cognitive load is found in having an inexact date that a user can easily comprehend in the mind. – Swapnil Borkar Jun 26 '16 at 3:16
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    With your comment on the Question itself, I believe for a Movies app like iMDb, it should be crucial to give out the movie release date, because users generally wouldn't want how many years ago it was released but the specific date - That is determined with User-Expectation, here it's an advantage. However, for websites that people upload in, it might make a lot more sense to have the inexact time since it reduces the cognitive load significantly. – Swapnil Borkar Jun 26 '16 at 9:02
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    Are there studies about inexact time representations reducing cognitive load, or more or less precise date representations causing significant cognitive load at all? I question that notion, that the minimisation of cognitive load is necessary in this case. You operate on the notion, that it is easier and what the user expects, but that is what I (with a data set of 1) feel is not the case. – Minix Jun 26 '16 at 10:06
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I think the difference in showing an absolute time vs a relative "... ago" is the difference between: "How old is this item (roughly)" vs "When was this item created"?

For example, when a uses watches a YouTube video, he might want to know how old the video is to check whether it is still relevant. The exact time doesn't really matter, "2 weeks old" is enough information.

In a chat for example, it might be more helpful to know when something was said exactly. Thus, absolute timestamps make more sense. The fact that Skype doesn't do this is just bad UI in my opinion.

Context is key. But in case a rough "ago" is used, I would always give users the ability to toggle to absolute timestamps.

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    I agree with that to a certain extend. Many YouTube videos are time critical. News or editorial pieces about current events. If after 7 days the precision drops to weeks, I can't see how that is an advantage to anyone. If they display a date, we have all the information we need. If I watch a video from 2015 it could be 6 to 18 months old. If I want to know how many I have that information, if I don't I just look at 2015 and know "a year ago". I just don't buy, that seeing a date is blowing the brains of people nowadays. Is there a study or a sensical example, other than "it's enough for most"? – Minix Jun 26 '16 at 8:43

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