Couple of issues with dates on web

September 7, 2009

It’s surprising that many websites display dates in formats that can be very confusing to users. Take this date for an example: 11/04/09 – is this April 11th, or November 4th? Format MM/DD/YYY is common for  USA, but most of the Europe use DD/MM/YYYY. In Japan it’s YY/MM/DD. They would be very confused with such date. Is it April 2011 already?

You should make dates understandable for all cultures and you can do it if you make it obvious. You should use month names (localized if there is a need for that) and 4 numbers for year. So, our example from the beginning can look like this: 11 April 2009 (or April 11th 2009). This looks better. shows date in a proper format

Another common issue is showing only day and month information without a year. This is especially common for large calendars on blogs. You can often see “15 Aug” in a calendar. In cases like this it is hard for users to determine if the reading is relevant for them. This applies especially to novice users who are not familiar with the topic. It would be good to show full date in order to enable them to quickly determine if reading is outdated or should they find some more up-to-date reading for particular area.


Calendar on UsabilityPost shows date in a proper format

Althought this looks obvious, many blogs and websites display dates in confusing or incomplete formats. Does this bothers you as well?

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  • zihotki (September 7, 2009)

    Yes it does :). News, blog posts and other date-related info without a date in url bothers me too. Also it will be more usable to include information about how long ago the post was submitted or news was added. It will help to check actuality of the information easy. And in my opinion it’s more preferable to use such date format for comments – "Commented 5 days ago, 21 April 2009".

  • Flug-Bucher (September 7, 2009)

    This is a really good advice. For me as a german reader it is often complicated to understand, which date is meant by the author. It would be much easier, if there where general rules. But the idea to use simply the name of the mounth is an option for sure.

  • Davide Espertini (September 7, 2009)

    Oh yes This bothers me much. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the information he is recent or not. :S

  • BeckhamFan (September 7, 2009)

    What irks me is the fact that some sites are not showing the post dates at all. You won’t know if the articles are fresh.

  • tarmo (September 7, 2009)

    It bothers me a lot, US format sucks the most. European isn’t any better either. Japan format is almost there, but the best is standard ISO 8601 format (YYYY-MM-DD hh:mm). Don’t like month names, they are different in various languages. 24h clock is also the way to go, AM and PM is confusing as hell. "(2 days ago)" is a plus, but bad choice without the full date.

  • Ronny-André Bendiksen (September 7, 2009)

    This is a very good point. As a Norwegian, I’ve had trouble many times with interpreting dates on American or international sites.

  • Marko Randjelovic (September 7, 2009)

    You really have a point. It drives me mad when I have to figure out if it’s DD/MM or MM/DD. :)

  • webmasterdubai (September 7, 2009)

    nice article and nice point regarding date issue

  • MJ Stapleford Corporate Identity (September 7, 2009)

    I have visited websites before where I had confused the dates due to this issue. This is good advice. I will go check my blog now to see if I am making the same mistake!

  • web page designer (September 7, 2009)

    I agree with tarmo, dates should all be in the form of: (YYYY-MM-DD hh:mm)

    Doing it that way makes dates naturally sortable as well.

  • Janko (September 8, 2009)

    zihotki: having the information about how long ago something was posted can be used as an addition to dates, although I think a proper date format would be enough.

    Flug-Bucher: Yes, it would be good to have standardized date format (and not only date). Until then, descriptive and non-ambiguous date format is the way to handle this.

    BeckhamFan: It’s the worse case of date usage :)

    tarmo, web_page_designer : Although Japanese format works for you, it doesn’t work for me for example. So the point is to avoid standard date formats that mean little to users and use more descriptive formats. I don’t know why you dislike month names, they can be easily localized according to your regional settings or chosen language and can be easily interpreted by users.

    Regarding sorting, it should be always done in native format or format stored in database, regardless of the format in which it is presented to the users.

    Davide, Ronny-André, Marko: Yes, it really can be frustrating for users.

  • Internet Business (September 8, 2009)

    Agreed. Dates bother me very much. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the information is recent or not…

  • tarmo (September 8, 2009)

    I guess "08 Sep 2009 at 12:26" is good in lot of places, but what if you have a list of unsorted dates? YYYY-MM-DD is visually sortable. Standards are not for avoiding, if everybody would use standards, there would be no issues.

    Now, about localization, Internet is global, but lot of the sites are with single language, information you write could be interesting for people who speak some bizarre language. Luckly, Google Translate is able to parse dates and translate them most of the time, but sometimes, it doesn’t have a clue what "Sep" means in some other language.

  • Janko (September 8, 2009)

    tarmo: It depends on the context. The example you provided are common for grids and grids can be sorted in any format while visual representation can be more descriptive. Format yyyy-mm-dd might me visually sortable, but also might be hard to scan. I’ve seen users having difficulties in web applications (intranets) with dates in such formats. More descriptive dates reduce number of errors.

    With regards to localization, if content is in English, dates also will be in English. If user wants to read some article in English we can assume that he/she is familiar with the language and that he/she will understand September. If content is localized based on regional setting or chosen language, it is intentionally for users who want to read something in specific language.

  • Castle Toys (September 10, 2009)

    Yeah this often baffles me, maybe it’s time for a universal online date system. We could call it UODS for those of us who love acronym’s. hehe

  • Montana Flynn (September 11, 2009)

    Castle Toys is onto something. I propose the UDOS would be Month, date, year. But I am an American. I would love to know how to localize my wordpress date for other languages. Any ideas?

  • Web Design Company (September 11, 2009)

    Really its a wonderful topic. Of course date makes big issue at most of the times due to misunderstanding. For best result, let use such date format – 21 April 2009 which would be more clear for all country.

  • Karl (September 13, 2009)

    I prefer the yyyy/MM/dd hh:mm format for its explicitness, though it doesn’t really bug me what format the date is in as long as it is there and the year is easily identifiable. For applications with time sensitive information though, month names and a localized "human" date format all the way.

    @Montana Flynn: You can get a localized format string from the message function __() and pass it to the the_date()/the_time() functions.


  • Mike B. Fisher (September 13, 2009)

    This problem can bee seen on many US airline websites. And you’re right – simply using mm/dd or dd/mm often isn’t enough information. It’s especially a problem on sites where there’s a high probability that some of the customers will expect different formats (e.g. – international travelers flying on a US airline or a US airline that flies internationally).

  • Henrique (September 18, 2009)

    Even better would be showing the dates with the visitor’s locale settings. Javascript may help here :)

  • SergioSuperstar (September 18, 2009)

    Once again you noticed, small but important thing. Keep up the good work!