Every digital project is essentially a battle with time. It is simultaneously our most precious and finite resource, and our nemesis.

Chris How
Chris How
one week ago

This fight against time is ongoing, and one where you need to find ways to not just win the odd battle but also the war.

The problem with time

This is true for in-house design teams as well as agencies. Sadly, time more often than not wins. This results in projects ending with some of the most inventive, interesting and potentially valuable ideas left languishing in the backlog.

The trouble with time is that we have become sophisticated at counting it, but maybe mis-directed in how we measure it.

We use Kanban boards like Trello and PivitolTracker to show when we will do something. We use time reporting tools such as 10,000ft Plans and Harvest to capture what we have done with our time. However, we don’t yet seem to have great tools to help answer the more vital and interesting question: Was our time well spent?

In wanting to make more of time - this most precious and finite of resources, I think we should move away from only asking ‘when’ and ‘what’ and include into the mix ‘why’.

What to do about it

I’ve been pondering ways to ensure the projects I work on stand a better chance of delivering that delightful or novel feature that will make it standout. The type of feature that materialises when time is protected to innovate and go the extra mile.

To explore if my time was being used in a valuable way, I recently created a canvas to do two things: help predict where time should be best spent, and help evaluate if it could had been used more effectively.

The simplicity of the framework belies its strength. I’ve used it on digital projects as well as in organising my weekends, and even planning what to do on a City break.

I now find that I have time to get round to more of the fun, inventive and unusual bits during projects, and on a Sunday evening I’m less likely to wish for another day of the weekend to be able to indulge a passion.

If you want to give it a go you can download a copy of the canvas. Feel free to share it and tag myself and Clearleft when you do – it’s under a Creative Commons licence.

Diagram of Time Well Spent Canvas
‘Time Well Spent’ created by Chris How

Take some time to make some time

Like many an economic model (after all, time is your most valuable resource), the sections are created from two axis–enjoyable and valuable–which forms four quadrants. Let me introduce each one in turn.

Don’t do - low value and low enjoyment

At the bottom left side is the ‘don’t do’ zone. This is inhabited by unnecessary tasks.

Miserable people do miserable work. There’s no time-rebate at the end of a project. Stop wasting your time on things that don’t make a difference. Challenge whether you really need to do a task. Start to make better use of your time.

Ask yourself and your team what they think sits here and see if you can bin it. You might be surprised how many habitual tasks in a project can be assigned to this quadrant.

Don’t overdo - low value but high enjoyment

This is an interesting and dangerous place. It’s where the tasks that you love doing but deliver low value live.

It’s easy to get distracted by shiny new things. It’s easy to slip into comfortable habits and use well trodden techniques that you find fun. It’s easy to fill your time and think you are working hard.

Beware the time-sinks and shiny distractions that lie in this quadrant. Resist the temptation to over polish your work where it adds little overall value to the project.

Ask yourself if you actually need a beautifully presented usability report, or will a list of observations and actions serve the project better? Do you need to create a presentation with a slidedeck, or can you get better results from spending the time facilitating a discussion instead? Do you need a 600dpi print-ready version of your customer journey map, or will a photo of your scribbles and Post-it® notes move the project forward just as well and quicker?

Need to do - high value but low enjoyment

Let’s move over to the side of the graph concerned with adding greater value. On the bottom right-hand side is the need to do activities. For tasks that fall into this quadrant, focus on finding ways to reframe, speed-up or mechanise them.

Some tasks give you less pleasure but are essential. For these find ways to reduce the time needed, break them up, or share them out.

Ever get the feeling of deja-vu from essentially writing the same usability testing facilitation guide or recruit screener? Save time in the long run by creating a library of successful boilerplate questions. Then, this task becomes reframed as revisiting and restocking your library.

Typing up Post-it® notes from workshops is a drag. Reduce the burden by sharing the work out. Make it more fun (and quicker) by making it a competitive race with your colleagues.

Nearly anything that is boring, repetitive and time-consuming to do can be better achieved by a computer. If you are editing text and page numbers in the contents page of a report or trying to mash together analytics data with output from a content audit, then go ask a colleague with programming skills to write a macro to automate the process.  

Ensure you do - high value and high enjoyment

The final quadrant is the place you want to be spending your time in.

This is the area where losses in time result in cuts being made to your MVP, turning it from a delightful experience into a miserable viable product.

This is where the potential for innovation, delight and meaningful design live. The items in here need space and time to think, create and iterate upon. They are often some of the trickiest challenges, but ones that offer most long-term value. Don’t leave them to the end and run out of time.

If you are using the canvas at the start of a project make sure you have at least one item in this quadrant. Then make time to explore, develop and deliver the idea. If you don’t, there’s a real danger your project will result in a cake with no icing.

How to use the canvas

1. As a team, or individually, write your user stories or tasks on blank playing cards.

2. Shuffle the deck.

3. Put each card in one of the quadrants.

4. Take action to review and re-adjust the time on tasks to get more time for the things that add value and you get pleasure from doing.

5. Repeat whenever you plan your next steps in a project.

Let me know how you get on

Tell me what things the canvas helped you find the time to do that would otherwise remain yet another missed opportunity. I’d love to hear from you. Get in touch via Twitter @chrishow @clearleft.