Structured content for timelines

Timelines are a common way to present information in a chronology. They show events in the past or future, and content is often associated with these events. In this article, we’ll explore how structured content can support timelines for many activities.

Michael Andrews

Published on Jul 9, 2020

People check timelines for many tasks. We expect to see a timeline for a course we are taking. “Your timeline” is a familiar presence in Facebook, Google Maps, and other apps.

Elements of timelines

Unfortunately, timelines are often presented as clunky infographics that can’t be resized or revised. It’s far better to approach timelines as a special kind of list that can be configured in many ways and updated easily. 

Information associated with timelines is inherently structured. You can combine time-related information with other informational elements. Common elements are:

  • A date
  • An event description
  • An image related to the event
  • A comment on what’s notable about the event

Other elements are possible:

  • Who’s involved, if including more than one person
  • Where the event happened, if that’s important
  • Advice on what to do next, if the event requires action or follow-up

Timelines organize information according to when things happen. They are anchored around dates or time intervals. 

We can specify time in various ways. Sometimes the precise date is important; other times, it is more about the sequence of events and knowing if activities have been completed. The time element can take different forms, depending on the purpose of the timeline.

Time elementRecommended use
Exact dates
  • To show each item individually in exact order
Month or Year
  • Can group several items together that fall within a range.
  • Useful when exact dates aren’t important
Time of day
  • Useful for schedules, or chronologies with short durations

Time intervals, such as

  • Day 1, Day 2, …
  • Week 1, Week 2, …
  • Useful for notional schedules such as a syllabus

Applications of timelines

Timelines express events. We can think about them in three parts:

  • What happened (or will happen)?
  • When did it happen (or will it happen)?
  • What’s the significance of this event?

Timelines are especially helpful when events involve:

  • Dense activities where much happens in a short period.
  • Drawn out activities that are hard to track otherwise.

Events can be either scheduled or generated by an activity. The nature of the event will often shape the goal of the timeline. Timelines of scheduled events are often used for planning and tracking timeliness. Timelines of activities that aren’t pre-scheduled can involve notifications and commentary, focusing on how often something happened.

The content relating to the event can be either about the reader or about the organization publishing the content. 

Past event about the reader

  • You did this
  • Something you own or use had a change in status
  • You need to know how a past event will influence you

Future event about the reader

  • You will need to do this
  • You need to plan for action at a certain time

Past event about the publishing organization or other party

  • We did this
  • We announced a change
  • A threshold was crossed, or milestone was reached

Future event about the publishing organization or other party

  • This will happen
  • This is projected to happen

A good way to decide what belongs in a timeline is to think about the customer’s “job to be done” (JTBD). This job will often be in the form of “As a (kind of person), I need to check the status of (an event that’s in process) in order to (person’s goal). For example, “as a university student, I need to review what courses I have taken already in order to fulfill the requirements I need to graduate.” We can see this job aligns with a timeline: showing what courses were taken and when, and what still need to be taken by a certain date.

The example illustrates how timelines can be used both to review past events as well as preview upcoming ones.

Timelines are especially relevant when they are about personal activities, presenting information about past purchases, finished books, upcoming trips, or future events. Some companies provide a timeline of their customer’s interactions with them in the past. 

Both consumer and enterprise apps provide timelines based on the activities and decisions people managed while using the app. Content can be added to activity timelines in apps to enrich the information presented. For example, the timeline in a financial management app could provide tips for customers besides a listing of their spending activities. As apps become more important to the management of tasks, timelines can offer advice or coaching content relating to these tasks.

Thanks to the ability of headless CMSs to seamlessly connect content with customer data, you can combine messages and informative guidance to accompany key events that customers experience using your product or service. 

Review, check, and reflect

Think about occasions when readers might want to see events that happened in the past. While past events may not seem as interesting as future plans, readers can be interested in retrospective timelines for a range of reasons. They let users:

  • Review past activities.
  • Check if and when something happened in the past.
  • Reflect on what they need to do in the future based on what’s happened already.

Examples of things that audiences may want to review include:

  • Their car’s service history
  • Memories of an extended trip
  • Insurance claim processing activity
  • Their learning achievements
  • Major company announcements they need to know about
  • Software updates or changelog
  • Changes and key updates on employee policies

It’s possible to generate timelines that are customized for the user by only including what’s changed since the last time they did an activity. For example, if they must resubmit a legal authorization only occasionally, the publisher could provide a timeline of changes that have occurred since the last time the customer submitted an authorization. Past events can be important for making decisions in the future.

Plan and preview

When customers think about the future, certain questions frequently come up:

  • What is coming up they need to prepare for? 
  • What should they expect?
  • What details have changed since they last looked at this issue?

Dates are “triggers” that alert customers about what they need to do.

Finance Calendar
Example of a timeline for taxes, from New York City

Timelines provide customers with a preview of the future. They can support:

  • Tasks to be done
  • Projects to accomplish
  • Situations to manage
  • Scheduled events to experience
  • Windows of opportunity when the timing is optimal for specific activities

All these activities can involve multiple events.

Tasks often involve submitting information online, such as the application process to a school or university. Such tasks involve several steps that may have different dates for when different subtasks need to be done. This is especially true if multiple parties are involved in the task. For example, individuals may need to prepare for the submission of their tax return by tracking dates for receiving the information they need as well as dates for submitting information.

Projects are similar to tasks, but broader in scope and may take longer to do. Personal and group projects are often driven by timelines involving key milestones, such as:

  • Deadlines requiring action
  • Decisions or announcements that must be awaited because they influence future actions
  • Mandatory activities that are necessary to complete the project

An example of a project where timelines can be helpful is a professional certification process. These many involve schedules and windows of time in which certain activities must be done.

Situations-to-manage are scenarios where the customer needs to decide how to respond to events projected to happen in the future. The situation may involve precise dates for a change affecting the customer, or an uncertain timeframe. The emphasis is on taking action before it is too late. Common situations to manage include:

  • Product changes, such as the end of life (EOL) for a product that requires the migration of data
  • Legal changes, such as new tax laws that influence investment allocations

By providing a schedule of expected changes in a timeline, customers can manage the situation appropriately. 

Scheduled events can involve many activities and people.  They commonly occur over more than one day—sometimes over weeks or even months. People engage with them either as a participant or as an observer. These events are structured around a program. They may have openings, closings, and sometimes climaxes where an outcome is decided. Timelines can preview when activities that are part of series will happen, for example, a sporting match such as the World Cup. 

Some timelines are built around windows of opportunity: the best time to do something. For example, a trip is planned for a specific period. A timeline can indicate events happening in the location while you are there, especially unique ones that you couldn’t see another time. The timeline of possibilities can be converted into a personal timeline of plans once decisions have been reached.

Timelines are dynamic

Any content topic that’s associated with several dates is a potential candidate to present as a timeline. As time passes, the boundary between what has passed and what is upcoming will change. With structured content, timelines can indicate which events have occurred already and which ones haven’t. They can show different levels of detail, depending on the context. 

Time is dynamic; timelines should be too.

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