Immediacy & Action

Let’s talk about the future.

In an earlier post, I talked about different representations of timelines. However, time can manifest itself in a myriad of ways, both in how a product ‘talks’ to its user and how a user describes a product. I want to consider both.

The Product Talking

Researchers have established that users conceptualize events and products through psychological distance. For example, we conceptualize tomorrow as physically closer than next year, we conceptualize friends as physically closer than strangers, and so on. This is important because our conceptions of psychological distance influence our behaviors.

For example, Chandran and Menon (2004) show that framing a negative future situation as psychologically closer caused people to consider that event to be more concrete and dangerous. People who read about heart disease as affecting people every day (as opposed to every year) reported that they found heart disease to be a greater problem and that they would take more steps to prevent themselves from developing heart disease.

In other words, presenting an event as closer in time modifies people’s sense of immediacy, and, consequently, the actions they will take for/against that action.

This is all fine, well, and good for day vs. year, but people do not usually talk about things in this way (these are called adverbials, and we can nerd out about them at another time). However, people DO frequently talk about future events. So how do they do it? Two main linguistic constructions:

Will Future (I’ll go with a burger)

Be Going to Future (I’m gonna go with a burger)

On the surface, the difference between these two constructions seems negligible.

However, my doctoral research shows that people think of events that are described with the Be Going to Future (I’m gonna go with a burger) as more immediate in time than events that are described with the Will Future.

I described an event to people and then asked them to estimate how long until that event would occur. There were two groups, and each read a different sentence.

Group 1: He’s gonna discover a planet (Be Going to Future).

Group 2: He will discover a planet (Will Future).

Participants estimated the time to the event on a 1-7 scale, with 1 as seconds from the present and 7 as years from the present.


As you can see from the graph, where the red dots indicate averages for each group, participants reliably estimated the same event (the discovery of a planet) as more immediate (months to years in the future) when described with the Be Going to Future when compared to the Will Future (years in the future).

This is a big deal, because it suggests that the language a product uses could influence the user’s sense of immediacy and actions.

For example, say I’ve got a game on the app store. I’ve got a description for it, and I want to convince the user how much fun it’s gonna be.

My research suggests that using the form Be Going to (it’s gonna rock your world) as opposed to the Will Future (it will rock your world) will likely yield more downloads. That is, if it’s gonna rock my world, it’s more immediate and visceral.

Importantly, this would need to be tested, and it will certainly differ from context to context. But this is the perfect example of how cognitive linguistics can be directly applied to user experience research.

The User Talking

But that’s just for the product. What about the user?

Let’s talk about a game again. I put an iPad in a kid’s hand and ask him to play my newest game, Knights of Boulderia 2: Electric Boogaloo. I ask her to talk her way through the game. Don’t just play. Talk. Explain to me what you’re doing, what your intentions are. I record and transcribe.

If the kid uses the expression “I’m gonna go down this hall at blast that wizard” as opposed to “I’ll go down that hall and blast that wizard,” I may have strong linguistic evidence that the game is eliciting a strong, visceral response from the user. She feels a sense of immediacy and is therefore more engaged with the game.

I could even run a quantitative analysis of game junctures and the verb forms that she uses. This could set the stage for areas that require improvement and areas to capitalize on.

In short, user experience could be qualitatively and quantitatively described by the linguistic constructions that users employ.

Again, this is a hypothesis, and it would need to be tested—contextually! Still, my research shows that there’s a good chance that such research could strong results for actionable product changes.


This post covers the space-time topography of English speakers, or how they conceptualize future events differently depending on how those events are described to them or how they describe those events.  In other words, language can tell us about how to interpret products and how we are experiencing a product.

These insights tell us more about the user experience.

There is so, so much exciting work to be done here.


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