The Science of Waiting … and Waiting … for Your Page to Load
Assuming you’re not reading this on your iPhone 12s in some far more web-optimized future, it probably took this page between two and three seconds to show up. That’s … not bad. Sure, the range could be higher or lower depending on your browser, your location, the network you’re using, the time of day, your device, and all sorts of other variables. But two-to-three seconds is a good baseline for August 2016.
How long it seemed to take is an entirely different matter. Even with increasingly faster devices, speedier networks, and optimized web code, waiting is inevitable—and legitimately stressful. The good news it’s also relatively easy to manage the perception of that waiting, and web designers are getting better and better at it.
“Our sense of time is surprisingly easy to manipulate,” says Stanford neuroscientist David Eagleman, “whether it’s actual duration or the order in which things happen.” Your emotional state, immediate environment, the music playing in the background, cultural biases—all of these can affect whether a download that is fast actually feels fast.
Online, designers can combat this reflexive wait hate with information. “Uncertainty is a disease, and information is usually the cure, particularly with software” says Steve Seow, a former Microsoft researcher and author of Designing and Engineering Time. Even something as simple as a gradually filling circle to convey the progress of a download can go a long way to keep slowness rage at bay.
Simple distraction can help, too. For all the reasons mirrors in elevators and non-functioning traffic light buttons work, so do different styles of determinate and indeterminate loading animations. Give someone something to focus on that distracts or takes their mind off the wait and, hey, it’s not really waiting. (See Houston airport’s ingenious solution to its baggage claim problem—they made wait times seem shorter by increasing the distance .)
That optimized eye candy can be deployed in a number of ways online. For instance, Facebook and Google both use what are known as dynamic content place holders. These animated images show up instantly on articles that haven’t fully loaded to let people know what’s happening (things are loading…) and what’s coming (text and pics!); they set expectations and even do a little distracting.
Other websites simply mask delays with animation, slowly revealing text or images instead of, say, showing you a loading spinner followed by the sudden appearance of all content. That subtly animated heart you saw on your phone when you liked your friend’s Instagram pic probably didn’t register on the company’s servers while you were riding on an underground subway, but Instagram let you see it anyway. No harm, no foul.
As Chris Harrison, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, discovered, progress bars can also benefit from certain kinds of animation. Specifically, designers can use visual illusions to alter perceived wait times. After testing a variety of progress bar styles, Harrison and his colleagues found that a visually augmented one with backwards flowing ribbing made wait times appear 11 percent faster than they really were.
This work expanded on previous progress bar experiments—all of which revealed a number ways to visually manipulate perceived time. For instance, by including pulses that increased as a progress bar, um, progressed, Harrison was also able to create the illusion that the bar was moving faster.
“I was always fascinated by this general hypothetical question: Would you rather have a computer that feels fast, but is actually slow in reality. Or a computer that just feels slow, but is actually very fast?” says Harrison. “Luckily, with computing, we can have both: A computer that is fast, but feels even faster with good design.”
Unfortunately, good design can’t cure all time-related quandaries. New research suggests that with shorter waits (usually five seconds or less), visual content (including animations) can actually make wait times seem longer. There are also certain animations that have become synonymous with waiting and frustration (*cough* Apple’s spinning wait cursor *cough*) whose very appearance is enough to provoke rage. (Time stretches when we get mad.)
Apparently, we’re becoming so familiar with certain loading animations, we’re even starting to ascribe wait-related blame based on the one a company chooses.
So, yes, we still have plenty to learn about time perception. As Eagleman points out, we’re all constantly recalibrating our sense of time to various environmental cues, as well as our own expectations and tolerances. For an increasingly impatient web population, that can be hard to control for, but designers are getting really good at it. We just have to give them some more time.
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