What time is it?

I recently read a poll on the Fediverse asking, "Can you read an analog clock?". This struck me as odd as I just assumed that almost all adults would be able to do this. Or at least all literate enough to be participating in such an online poll.

Can you read an analog clock? (@schratze@todon.nl)

The poll did not get loads of votes (only 142) but perhaps enough to still be somewhat interesting. Initially it might seem I was correct. Most people can read them… and yet, the 6% who either struggle or cannot seems a little high. Particularly when you start to think about the kinds of people on Mastodon (with its heavy tech bias).

I turned around to my colleague at work a day or two after I saw that poll (I was still thinking about it) and asked her if she found analog clocks hard to read. She said no. In fact she went further and told me that actually she finds them easier. She wears a Fitbit smart watch, which displays the time digitally, but told me that when she is at home in the evenings and is tired (after a long day), she always looks at the analog clock on her wall (rather than the watch on her wrist).

I then decided to do my own poll

Which watch face UI do you find to be the best?

I got 134 results with 46% preferring analog and 52% digital—the final 2% is explained below¹. Now I started to ponder if, perhaps it was simply a case of what you learnt first and/or used the most.

Or maybe… there are other things going on?

Some people want precision and reading a precise time on a digital watch is likely quicker and easier for most people, when compared with looking at the minute hand on an analog clock and working out its exact position (especially so if it is lacking minute markers).

Other people (at least some people, myself included) do not always want or need that precision. You want to know if you have arrived to a certain point in the day, like "lunch time" or "the end of work" and may not care about the exact minute. You need to know if you are "close" or "past" that point. Analog clocks are very good at visualising this, with the hands working much like a pie chart.

Consider that something is going to happen at 2PM. If you look at a digital watch and it says 1:57 (or 13:57), you can read that at a glance but it takes a simple calculation to think, "57 is 3 mins to 60, so it is almost 2". While with an analog clock you could visually note that it is "almost 2", and think "I need to get to that meeting now!", without actually having to ever work out the precise time.

So which is easier? Analog or Digital? I still think exposure to the interfaces matters the most. If you have always had digital watches and hardly used an analog one, you will find the former easier. However, even when you are very familiar with both I think it depends on the person, both their distinct personality, and perhaps also the nature of how they work with time in their home life and their job. Indeed it might be that one style works better depending on the activity you are using it for.

Plus there is also always the possibility that neurologically we are wired differently and one or other interface simply will never work for certain people. 🤷🏼

¹ I included a third (joke) option in my poll for a "binary" interface. Surprisingly this took 1% and the rest was probably lost to rounding.

Binary wrist watch

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