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July 29, 2014

Wait for it… the User Experience of Perceived Software Speed

Dollarphotoclub_41232870Here in the 21st Century, we've learned to expect everything NOW. With all the world’s information just a keystroke away, we get downright fidgety when we have to wait more than a few seconds for anything. But designers have been engineering perceived speed into technology for more than 100 years—and you’ve experienced it if you’ve ever waited for an elevator. User experience begins with modeling the real world,” said GN ReSound Senior User Experience Designer Chris Kiess, during his July 23 Chicago Interactive Design & Development presentation. “It’s all about the subjectivity of time.” The Science of Waiting for the Elevator. When people complained about how long it took for elevators to arrive, engineers developed displays that showed what floor the elevator was on. Kiess called these lights “a primitive version of the wait bar,” and described how lobby mirrors and the “close door” button are also tactics to make people’s wait time more endurable. He outlined the three concepts of time perception:

  1. Make it faster
  2. Make it appear faster
  3. Make it tolerable

The first goal is for developers, but the last two are where UX designers can shine. He stressed the importance of understanding the “internal pulse” of psychological time, and the difficulty of playing catch-up after a slow start, reminding listeners that “service equals perception minus expectation.” Humans, Computers and Communication. “The essence of Human-Computer Interaction is communication,” said Kiess. To make software speed seem faster and more tolerable, we should ask, “What if HCI mimicked our own interactions?” He described six ways such human-modeled systems should behave:

  1. Tell us input is received
  2. Tell us how long a process will take
  3. Manage tasks in the background
  4. Free us for other tasks
  5. Anticipate common pathways
  6. Simply respond and reassure

These behaviors work, in part, because they turn waiting time into occupied time. (This is why supermarkets place magazines in the checkout lane—when you have something to look at, the wait feels shorter!) When we have something to do while our computers work, we don’t mind the time it’s taking—and it actually feels like the process is faster. Techniques and Applications to Make Time Fly. Kiess presented 12 tactics UX can employ to make wait times feel faster and more tolerable. Some of the most important: Create user flow. This requires giving users a sense of control, removing the anxiety and uncertainty that can make eight seconds feel like an eternity. Challenge users on their own level, give them clear goals, and make sure they get prompt feedback. Use time anchors. “Prevent users from holding us to exact numbers,” Kiess said. Instead, state ranges that give people reasonable expectations: “Installation will take between 3 and 5 minutes.” Build continuous duration. Studies show that medical patients who have to wait in two or three different places actually think their wait time is longer. Keep the flow smooth and avoid segmentation with “fire and forget” processes. Add meaningful diversion. Facing complaints about a slow baggage claim, an airport simply moved the incoming gates further away—and when people spent the extra time walking, they thought the baggage claim was much faster. Once again, it’s about waiting time vs. occupied time. For the complete list of techniques—and lots of other resources—visit Kiess’ website. You can spend hours there, but it will feel like minutes!

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