Different information in dates

Category: UX

Published: 02/18/2010 03:35 a.m.

The following is a list of different date formats for Tuesday, January 12th, 2010. With each is a brief explanation of its potential use and possible pitfalls.

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

This is quite long. It's great because we get the day of week, month, date, and the full year all in one spot. But this format just feels much too long to be something that you would want to appear for anything recent. If it was the day after, then Tuesday, Yesterday, the 11th, or even Jan 11th would suffice. But, as an archive format, this date can be useful.

Jan 12, 2010

We get the short spelling of the month and the day without a suffix, and finally the full year. This date is much shorter and compact, however it does not convey everything. The day of week is missing and is probably not something someone would know immediately. Also, the date abbreviation can be tricky if done by hand. I've seen Sept. and the full July written while the others were only three letters. Consistency is lost.


This, or similar with dots or dashes solves the problem of the abbreviated month, but it still misses out on the day of the week. This date is shorter which is of great benefit. However, meaning is lost and this can be confusing, especially for foreigners. Many (all?) european countries show dates as DD/MM/YYYY while the date about is MM/DD/YYYY. The month and day are switched. For 3/31/2010, it's not confusing. But it is for 1/11/2010. There are even variations with including or not including a leading zero. 01/12/2010 or say 01/09/2010 for Saturday.


This is the same as above but with a shortened year. This is not helpful at all, since 10 can represent a month, day, or year. This format still exists, often in handwritten form, as year in the final place is universally accepted. This is about as short as the numbered dates can get. The semantic dates are a bit different.

Last Tuesday

This is a time-sensitive date. It only works for about 7 days, and then there is a new Tuesday to take over the role of the last Tuesday. On a day like Wednesday, this can also be confusing. Does last Tuesday refer to the previous day or 8 days ago? It is hard to tell. This is also true of saying last weekend on a Monday. Is it the one that just ended or the one previous to that.


Now we have lost the 'last' as well as most of the value. This only works in a range of about 2 days surrounding the Tuesday in question. This can be very useful on Thursday and on Sunday, but not Monday and Wednesday because then you could use tomorrow or yesterday.

3 days ago

This is a relative date and is only good for one day, after which it changes. This can help when referring to things that are not likely related to the day of week or the date. I had pizza for dinner 3 days ago is more useful than a date in a numeral form. But, once it exceeds about 5 days, it becomes difficult to quickly count and find the day of week or date.

Unfortunately, there is no best date format. It almost always depends on the situation you are in. In conversation, words work best for shorter distances in time. For the longest dates, more detail works. However, if the day of week isn't important, it can often be left off. The real trick is to pick the least confusing date at that time.

This may sound boring to most people, but choosing the right way to display a date is one of those savory pieces of polish in really good software. With time-aware programming, websites like Twitter are able to display dates differently depending on the length of time between the date and now. This small distinction can go a long way in good communication and usability.