if only conversation had a well-designed user interface

“I’ve figured out what clocks with hands are for,” said my Patient Husband.

Since I’d always figured they were for telling time, I paid attention. “Go on.”

We were driving. He said, “You don’t need to pay attention to the precision of an analogue clock the same way you need to pay attention to a digital clock. With a digital, you need to focus on the numbers and decode them, whereas a clock with hands can give you a general idea of the time without your having to stop in order to process the full degree of precision.”

I said, “I just think they’re more elegant.”

He continued, “If that’s one thing that working at Angelborough Geekery Incorporated has taught me, it’s how difficult it is to provide enough information to the end users without overwhelming them. In a digital age, all too often we reduce all our information to a series of numbers that need to be interpreted in order to acquire the information we want to obtain, and it’s delivered at a degree of precision that’s not always necessary. But a clock with hands is a well-designed user interface.”

Kiddo#1, from the back, said, “Are we supposed to understand any of what you’re talking about?”

“I never thought of a clock as having a user interface.” I paused. “But if you think about it, even if one of the hands falls off, or the numbers, you can still get a very good idea of the time from what remains. And if you do need a higher degree of specificity, you can add a sweep second hand or even the kind of hand they had in Cheaper By The Dozen, where the clock hand made a full revolution every second.”

My Patient Husband said, “See, that’s what I mean. It’s not only a well-designed user interface, but it’s fault-tolerant as well.”

From the back of the car: silence.

This is how geek parents embarrass and shock their children.


  1. cricketB

    Uh, Jane? Dad told me about that years ago. His dress watch only has marks for 12, 3, 6 and 9. He could read it instantly.

    With digital, “two minutes to midnight” requires math, as does “in five minutes”. With analog, you to go the top and count left two ticks or count five ticks to the right, but it takes longer to find 3:28.

    The local schools are big on “number sense”, basically using a number line. When asked to point to nine, they want the kids to point to under the ten, not read the marks, as well as other things about relative size of numbers. It’s even more important with calculators and scientific notation.

    Even after decades of using both types, including training the kids to convert quickly (they had to master analog before they got digital) I still read them differently. At 2:50 I have to think about whether I have time to fold laundry before 3:00, but if the hand’s on the ten I know.

    I used to prefer analog because Grandma’s fancy clock was analog. Now I find digital has better battery life.

    1. philangelus

      See, I’m not a geek by nature. I never bothered quantifying why I liked clocks with hands more than clocks with numbers. I just knew they looked cooler. I have had watches with no numbers at all, watches that ran backward, and in one case a digital watch where the digital part was the hands. 🙂

  2. Nikole Hahn

    Very, very funny!

  3. Ken Rolph

    A clockface is a map of time. A digital readout is just an infobite. If you want to work with time digitally you need to be able to do mental arithmetic. On a clockface you can step forwards and backwards with your fingers. They are totally different experiences with different relationships to time.

    Here’s an interesting thought. What does it mean to say a digital watch moves clockwise?