Time in Design: Cross-Cultural Exploration of Time in the Arab World

Recently, the following anecdote came up with my friend Fida, who’s a Computer Science Masters student at UW

After living in the US for 3 years, I went back to visit my family in Saudi Arabia. Among the many festivities of being home, my aunts invited my sisters and I over for lunch. “What time should we be at my aunts’ place?” I asked my sister Bushra. “After Noon prayer,” she replied. I was a little bit confused, “so, what time is that?” She answers: “the call for prayer is around a quarter after noon.” Her answer did not help very much, so I insisted: “should we leave our house at 12:15? How far is their place? Do they expect us immediately after prayer is adjourned or a little bit later?” The puzzled look on my sister’s face mirrored my own. “They’re expecting us after Noon Prayer,” she repeated. It was clear that we were using different units of time that indicate different perceptions.

Illustrated in this anecdote is the curious dilemma of “time” that the sisters were negotiating through their different perceptions. Bushra provided a general reference indicated by the time of a prayer, while Fida was waiting for time in units of hours and minutes. Fida and I have recently become interested in exploring the concept and notion of time. Specifically, we want to question how “time” travels as a value through technology and across borders. We are two Saudi researchers with our feet in two contexts: The Middle East and the US. We have been researching cross-cultural system design for a while in our mission towards more inclusive and culturally-sensitive technologies. In exploring the “Time by Design” dilemma, we take into account the reality that many of the most widely-used technologies—such as Google Calendar, Facebook Events, Maps—are imported from abroad with a Western notion of time. That raises important questions about the way information and communications technologies (ICTs) shape/influence or are shaped/influenced by cultural values endemic to the GCC region.

Social Construction of Time

Offering an example of the notion of time in clockwise manner; we begin from the US or the American concept of time, which mostly is discussed as Monochronic in the context of hourly pay, ‘me’ time, work/life balance, being on time. From these examples, it becomes clear that there is a strong association between time and monetary value in America, making time an expensive unit and asserting the importance of punctuality. Similar to the US, with some minor differences are other Western cultures, such as England, which are known for being very strict when it comes to punctuality, and consider it to be rude if a few minutes late.

Eastern cultures, on the other hand, perceive time differently as they view time in a cyclical manner [1,2] meaning that time is “not a scarce commodity,” and there is always going to be tomorrow to make up for lost time. The treatment of time and punctuality differ between countries in that region though. For example, in China it is common to arrive to a meeting 15-20 min earlier to get done faster, comparatively, it is more common to arrive either on time or couple of minutes late (5 mins) in the US. India is another story, there are many online articles that discuss — and warn Western tourists — the concept of time and that it is perceived in a slower manner. In other words, “Indian Standard Time (IST) is sometimes refereed as Indian Stretchable Time and that “Indian’s’ [sic] rather value the outcome than the Time itself.”

Continuing our clockwise journey, we arrive to the Arab world, the main focus of this article, where ‘Arab’ time is fluid and is much more flexible than other cultures. Mostly influenced by the Bedouin tradition and Islamic culture, Arabs perception of time is constructed historically from  “the Bedouin traditions [that] contained knowledge on the fixed stars, the passage of the sun and moon through the zodiacal signs and lunar mansions, and the seasons and associated phenomenon.” For the Arabs, this was a needed body of knowledge due to Islam, as it required the ability to correctly determine the time and direction of Mecca for prayer, the moment of sunrise and sunset for fasting during Ramadan, and for fixing the appearance of the moon that marked the start of a new month.

Examples of Arab Time Artifacts

Hijri calendar

This picture depicts the calendar of the year 2016 that also embeds the parallel Hijri years, months and days. The Hijri calendar is followed in the Islamic tradition. It consists of 12 lunar months, each beginning with the new moon. The Gregorian and the Hijri calendars are tightly interweaved in this picture. From the top, the year 2016 is shown to coincide with two Hijri years, 1437-1438, written in Indo-Arabic numerals.  After that, every Gregorian month is subtitled with its corresponding Hijri months; every week day is subtitled with its Arabic name written in Arabic letters; and every day number is subtitled with it Hijri counterpart. In some Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, the Hijri calendar is still the main form of official time in schools, government institutions, and other aspects of life. This calendar unites and reconciles two different contexts, organizations and naming conventions of time. The synchronization that it provides supports a reader who seeks to find their way contextually and temporally.


Prayer Times & Ramadan

Every year, flyers such as the one depicted in this picture are widely printed and distributed in Muslim countries as the Hijri month of Ramadan grows near. In the Islamic tradition, Ramadan is considered the holiest month of the year. The flyer consists of a table that lists the prayer times for each day in that month. Muslims perform five prayers in a timely manner every day. The religious tradition denotes the time for each prayer as linked to the position of the Sun in the sky. For example, the time for Fajr prayer commences when the darkness of the night is interrupted by the first, thin line of light, and it ends when the Sun eventually rises. However, since the urban Muslim is not likely to be observant of the Sun’s daily cycles, the calendar translates times to the modern units of hours and minutes.

Design Implications

Our discussion and ongoing exploration of the concept of time cross-culturally highlights the ways in which time as a concept influences and is influenced by digital and non-digital technologies. Notably, these values are not necessarily understood—much less taken into consideration—when designers and developers create and/or augment technologies. Working within this vein of inquiry, we assert that a way to reduce cultural bias and design for globalization is to consider cross-cultural studies of certain values, like time.

Consider the Facebook Events feature as a design example. Many of us have used this feature to plan a birthday or a simple gathering with friends. Planning social events through Facebook in Saudi Arabia is not widely adopted thus far for some reasons. For one thing, people prefer to explicitly invite others in this hospitality-focused culture as it is politer (e.g., send a personal WhatsApp messages for the invite). Another reason is concerned with how invites specify time, Arab’s have a much open and flexible idea of time than other cultures. So, being late for an appointment or an invite is the accepted norm. In addition, Muslim cultures, in general, associate a great deal of their daily activities around prayer times. For example, socializing usually occurs after the Dusk prayer –last prayer of the day – because it is more convenient to meet at these time when you’re not obligated with another prayer. Also, in professional settings, it is known that employees will pray the noon prayer and then head to their lunch break.

One way Facebook Events can scale and become more culturally-sensitive to the values of the local population is through the inclusion of some simple design additions, such as payer times. So, instead of having one specific time to start or end an event (8pm or 7pm) a more flexible time option would service better (after Dhuhur prayer or Before Dusk prayer). In addition, knowing that people prefer to perform their prayers at the mosque or at a comfortable place, including a map that shows where the nearest mosque is will be beneficial. While fairly inexpensive to implement, this addition could have substantial impact on adoption in the Muslim part of the world.


My ongoing research with this population continues to reveal the need for more user centered research to address how technology and social media systems might be designed in a way that grants the needs of Arab Muslim users. These simple culturally-grounded and value-driven design decisions will have a definite impact on the usability of these technologies as they become more intuitive and simpler to use.


Published by

Norah Abokhodair

I'm an applied social scientist with a passion for researching and developing the next generation of social and collaborative technologies. Currently, I'm a Research Program Manager at the Microsoft Learning Innovation Lab where our cross-functional team of PMs, UX Researchers, and Software Engineers employ design thinking to discover the future of seamless learning experiences, leveraging the power of Artificial Intelligence.

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