A few months ago, I got into a rather feisty UX discussion with a coworker revolving around an innocent-looking tweet by Brad Frost. In it, he referred to a video that reveals a “shocking discovery” about an experience on a bank’s website.

That video came from UX designer Graeme Pyle, and depicted how he felt mislead by a progress bar, after he realized it didn’t describe the real progress of the transaction he had just performed.

Pyle explains how, during a visit to his bank’s website, he discovered that the site’s progress bar “is a total lie.” During the demonstration in the video, he shows how the bar progresses even though the computer doesn’t even have an Internet connection. Digging into the page’s HTML he reveals how the progress pace even tries imitating a realistic behavior, creating short pauses along the way.

When the video was uploaded, numerous comments identified with the betrayal Pyle felt, based on the idea that the information presented to the user should match the real actions taking place “behind the scenes.” But is that the “right” way to design?

One could find differing opinions in the Twitter discussion, including the claim that making the user wait (even artificially) might actually make the user experience better. One of the commenters was Yaniv Sarig, a coworker of mine at Uniq UI studio, with whom I had a fascinating conversation that led to ideas and action items we've already used in our projects.

User experience is a vast expression that comprises many principles beyond usability. The discussion on Twitter brought up two of those principles: perceived time and perceived value, which are, of course, are related and affect one another.

How Do We Perceive Time?

In Steve Souder’s article “The Perception of Speed,” he discusses perceived time, suggesting a few ways to fill the time users wait for a process to complete, such as presenting interesting content or asking users to perform some necessary actions.

These solutions are supposed to make the wait time seem shorter. You are probably familiar a similar trick thanks to airport architecture, which is generally designed to make the arriving passengers go through a long journey before getting to the baggage claim area, so the wait time there is perceivably shorter. The guiding principle is simple: time that passes while doing something is perceived shorter than time that passes while waiting statically.

In the digital world, when users are waiting for a page to load while staring at a blank page, they feel like they are waiting statically. On the other hand, when users wait for a page to load while the source page is still fully presented, perceived time will be shorter, since they have something keeping them busy. It’s very possible that this is what the bank’s website was trying to do. The progress bar may be nothing but an animation for the user to look at while waiting for a page to load.

There are many examples of apps using different methods to make perceived time shorter. In addition, the pace the bar progresses also has a major influence to on the perceived time, something discussed in this UX Movement article.

The bottom line

When trying to create a faster and smoother user experience you can shorten the perceived time rather than the actual time. In order to do so, you can fill waiting times using content, animations, or actions the user can perform. Notice that if there is any delay in the action happening behind the scenes, make sure you stop the distractions and notify the user.

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

In another article, “Wait for it …” by Stephan P. Anderson, he notes that when it comes to interfaces, faster isn’t always better. Sometimes a short wait will not necessarily harm the experience. In other words, if you want create a better user experience make the users wait.

This might seem contrary to common sense but think about it: when purchasing a lottery ticket, for example, the wait has an important role. If we take the waiting part out of the chain of events we are left with a person who gives someone a small amount of money for the ticket, and is immediately told if he or she won a large amount of money. This certainly kills the fun and suspense of slowly revealing the winning numbers, doesn’t it? The few bucks we spend on the ticket actually buys us harmless daydreams of being rich.

Sometimes increasing efficiency may harm the overall experience

In his detailed example, Anderson discusses what he calls the “missed opportunity” in an app that calculates fuel usage per mile: after users enter all the required details (miles driven since last fueling, numbers of liters in current filling, price etc.) they are excited to see the results telling them how good their fuel usage was over the past few days.

This is a thrilling moment, but it’s also the sole moment during the week when the app is used. The results appear without any delay, and the “missed opportunity” is that the designers didn’t give users a chance to guess for themselves, nor did they create any build-up of tension (like reality TV shows do so horrifyingly well). The result just appears on the screen in a cold and efficient way.

The bottom line

Just like any other aspect of UX, you have to put some thought into how you guide your users through a process involving waiting. Do not assume that the obvious option (give the user the data he asked for as fast as possible, in this case) is the right one. Sometimes increasing efficiency may harm the overall experience.

What Do You Eat When You’re Starving?

"Anything" is probably the correct answer. In other words, our expectations of something, whether our next meal or a page that's loading, obviously affect our appreciation of the outcome. This is what I referred to as perceived value, and it can serve as a powerful tool when designing an interface.

It gets even more important when the outcome we expect is complex. If we make an online money transfer through our bank account, a $1 transfer seems easier than a $10,000 transfer. Why? The answer may be related to our knowledge of how those actions are performed in the “real world” (i.e. a $1 transaction requires handing a single dollar bill and will take a few seconds, whereas a $10,000 transfer is a more complicated task). Of course, if we think about it rationally, the more accurate comparison is to writing a check, where the effort of making it out for $1 or $10,000 is very similar.

When an action we perform happens faster than we would expect it to, we may not appreciate the effort put into it. In more extreme cases we may think that if it happened too fast, maybe it didn’t happen at all.


Image of hourglass in zen garden courtesy Shutterstock.

Article No. 971 | March 6, 2013
Article No. 1 177 | January 27, 2014
Article No. 484 | February 12, 2010

Add new comment


I agree about the importance of perceived time, but misleading users about the time a task takes is highly counterproductive and almost certainly unethical. We have other ways to notify the user that a task has been completed than to waste their time. Every second people wait unnecessarily is time that they could be using for other tasks (a point made in the article, mercifully)—respect for the user means respecting their time. If a task is fast, then let it be fast. We can inform the user properly on the resulting confirmation screen. And a task performed more quickly than expected can be a delightful surprise.

I think you miss the point Omar. It depends on the context of use of the system. The overall user experience may not be dependant on the task being completed fast. I think this stems from a misunderstanding of the usability principle that covers providing imeadiate feedback from any user action.

Obviously some systems do require that tasks are completed quickly.

Users' satisfaction with a delay hinges on the assumption that the wait is necessary. If a user learns that the wait was not necessary, they feel rightly disrespected. If you do something to someone and hide that fact because they will be offended by what you did - that very clearly doesn't sound ethical. Yes, presentation can be important, but there is world of difference between gaining a user's acceptance of a delay and lying to them.

Here's a example to illustrate one way to think about this:

Whenever we wrap gifts, we are deliberately adding a delay. However, it is an obvious gesture and follows social rules. This doesn't MAKE us wait. It ALLOWS us the delay and gives us full control of our experience. We can rip the wrapping paper open at once or we can turn it into a game, shake the package, try to guess what's inside.

So, if we create some artificial delay, I believe these interaction rules are a good start, which you should find familiar:

(1) Do not lie to the user

(2) The user is always in control

(3) Get consent (make it clear what you're doing and that it's for the user's benefit)

I find it interesting that the discussion raised here is very similar to the one that led me to write this, in the first place. The ethical aspect is, of course, very important and can have a big impact on the experience. But I do believe that we make multiple choices that affect the experience, and that could be interpered as ethically inapropriate if they we brought to discussion with users (planting banners, directing the user's flow according to our intent, asking for login throgh social media and using information for marketing etc). I belive that a big part of the experience is choosing for the user, in order to save him decision making time and mental effort, according to our understanding of good design. This is part of our responsibility as designers, and we should use it wisely and honestly. I partly agree with Vlad, though, since it isn't always possible to be clear about every design choice we make. It coulf be a good solution for those controversial places.

If a designer choses something a user would never choose for themselves, they are not "choosing for the user". Moreover, designers indeed should "save them time and mental effort", but an unnecessary delay doesn't do that. I do think it's possible for every design choice to be honest and necessary.