Exploring the timescale of iOS’s Timer

Yesterday, I installed the iOS 7 beta on my phone. The last 24 hours have been a wild ride of Jony Ive redesign, and I could go on for days about the changes.

I’m interested in how personal computing is evolving in general, and right now it’s being driven by mobile, which is turn is largely influenced by Apple. With regard to personal computing, I’m particularly curious about the apps Apple chose to include shortcuts to in iOS 7′s Control Center. After iOS 7 was announced, I wrote a Facebook post about the exclusion of the Notes app from Control Center.

One app Apple did include a shortcut to is the Timer tool in the Clock app. (In the beta, even though the shortcut shows a timer icon the shortcut, it actually links to the most recently used feature in the Clock app.)

I’ve used the Timer on my iPhone every so often since I first got an iPhone in 2008. My main use cases have been:

  1. Laundry, especially in apartments where the laundry machines are out of earshot
  2. Cooking, for boiling pasta or baking
  3. Napping, as I’ve found that setting an alarm for a nap is much easier to do in relative time (20 minutes) than absolute time (3:37pm), in terms of both cognitive effort and interface friction
  4. Giving and rehearsing timed presentations

The Timer app in all versions of iOS only provides the ability to time hours and minutes, not seconds or days. I wonder, was this an oversight, or was there a conscious decision to leave it out? What are the unique use cases for other time scales, and are the alternatives adequate?

Timing Seconds

What sorts of activities require timing for a certain number of seconds? I did a quick Google search for “for X seconds” for various values of X < 60, and some of the topics that came up were around games, like board games and improv games; fitness, like how long to hold a plank pose; hygiene, like washing your hands; and mental concentration, like meditating or viewing an optical illusion. Some cooking techniques require precision to the second, like searing meat, brewing tea, or using a food processor. And perhaps filming a Harlem Shake video might be easier with a 30-second timer!

To get around the iOS timer’s limitations, there are many websites and third-party apps out there with second-precision timers. Apps for games or cooking can bundle in other functions, like game logic or recipes. It’s unlikely you’ll need to turn off your phone or switch to another app if you’re waiting for less than a minute, so these apps wouldn’t necessarily need multitasking support. You can also use the iOS Clock app’s Stopwatch, but that only works if you’re paying attention to your phone, not if you need a timer to interrupt your attention to something else.

Still, if iOS had native functionality for timing seconds, I’d happily use it, especially with the Control Center shortcut.

Timing Days

At the other end of the spectrum, what sorts of activities take multiple days? I Google searched “for Y hours” for Y > 24, and “for Z days” where Z = 2-6. Many of the results are health- and body-related (drug dosage schedules, fasting), commerce-related (limited-time offers, shipping options), and travel-related.

Even though iOS’s timer doesn’t work for this use case, there are other options on iOS to alert you for something that’s 1 or more days out, such as the Clock app’s alarms, the Reminders app, or Calendar events with alerts. These options all work better than timers since:

  1. you can have multiple such “timers” running simultaneously
  2. you can label each “timer” so that, 24 hours later, you actually remember what it is you’re reminding yourself of
  3. you can easily set up timed events to repeat themselves

I’m a heavy user of Calendar and a moderate user of Reminders – as I write this I’m setting up a reminder to write a new blog post every weekend. Given the above, I don’t think it would make sense to add days into the Timer app.