Why I hate relational timestamping in web apps

I hate relational timestamping. And I don't know if I just made the phrase or if there's a better term for it (maybe fuzzy timestamps), but I think we all know what I mean:

Posted 2 days ago, Posted 16 hours ago, Posted about 2 hours ago, etc.

There are several reasons I hate this format.

  • We use relational timestamps and real timestamps in tandem, requiring a mental "currency conversion" between posts. Example between two items: 3 days ago and Nov 10, 2011
  • It's not as precise as an real timestamp.
  • It takes the user longer to calculate the exact time of a post.
  • In some cases, it eliminates the ability altogether to find an exact timestamp, and that's an important use case that shouldn't be overlooked.

For example, I was reviewing some transactions in a system that uses relational timestamps. In order to figure out exactly what time "22 hours ago" was, I have to do several things:

  1. Look at the clock for the current time
  2. Figure out the quickest way to subtract the number of hours from a 24 hour day
  3. Add or subtract (depending on which is quickest) that number from the nearest day

That's a vastly complicated process for a user instead of just saying 6:45 PM.

Next, I wanted to figure out the frequency of transactions. So how do I figure out the difference between "3 days ago" and "10 Nov 2011"?

  1. First, I have to figure out today's date (probably by looking at a calendar): Nov 18
  2. Now I subtract 3 days from today: Nov 15
  3. Then I have to calculate the difference between Nov 15 and Nov 10: 5 days

That's three steps when an actual date would have eliminated this whole process.

The nay-sayers will say it doesn't require that much brainpower. I'd have to disagree. As a UX/UI guy, I'm always looking for the easiest, simplest solution for the user. I just don't find relational timestamps to be beneficial. They might come in handy for a developer who doesn't want to deal with timezones, but is it worth making a more complex user experience? I don't think so.

If we're going to continue using relational timestamps, we need to find a way to bridge the gap between relational timestamps and real timestamps. This will help reduce friction for users, and for a guy like me, creating a better user experience is the ultimate goal.

5 responses
I believe these are commonly called "relative timestamps", and I agree that they are difficult. One advantage to them, is that they are time-zone-agnostic, which is a downside of most *absolute* time stamps. Very few absolute time stamps include time zone identifiers, or translate the time stamp to match your time zone. I'm not actually sure if this can be coded into the site. Are browsers time zone aware, or could the site render you an accurate time stamp by detecting your ip address?
I agree with you, but why not just use the calculator application on windows 7. Try .com if you want absolute time stamps.
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