Noah Brier | September 24, 2020

Why is this interesting? - The Loading Bar Edition

On delays, processing, and communication

Recommended Products


A comprehensive, 300 page, limited edition art book on contemporary African surf culture.

Noah here. I’ve long believed there’s an art to the loading bar. Communicating that work is happening in a convincing way is actually harder than it seems at first. Spinners that just turn and turn like the dreaded rainbow pinwheel in MacOS are less convincing than progress bars or wheels that fill up to 100 percent. While most every software development team is trying to deliver the fastest service possible, slowdowns, whether on the server or client-side, are inevitable. Treating those gaps in service with some indication of what’s happening helps to keep users from feeling anxious or uncertain. 

The extreme version of those emotions was perfectly captured in a Tweet from a year ago by @ahieiei that thankfully found its way into my feed via WITI Contributor Tim Hwang. The “fan theory,” as Tim described it, looks behind the scenes of those loaders that seem to start and stop forever to reveal that they are actually three-dimensional ribbon twisting and turning to 100% full. 

Why is this interesting?

While it’s easy to think of the situations where we were thoughtlessly left to stare at some animated loader that left us with no indication of progress, there’s another kind of loader that we’ve almost certainly experienced without giving it much thought. In this scenario, rather than simply letting users know how much time is left in their task, the animation actually attempts to communicate what the server is doing while you’re waiting. This was made famous by the flight search sites who now seem to have mostly abandoned the practice. If you remember, they would attempt to show you the different airlines they were checking with and stops they calculated to help make your wait time feel a bit more manageable.

This concept came to be called “labor illusion” by Harvard Business School professors Michael Norton and Ryan Buell. Here’s how they explained it in a 2011 HBR piece they authored:

Customers find waiting more tolerable when they can see the work being done on their behalf—and they tend to value the service more. … This holds true even when what’s shown is merely the appearance of effort. What we term the labor illusion—a demonstration of effort, whether literal or not, expended to meet the customer’s request—can be so effective, in fact, that many customers who endure waits but see a running tally of tasks end up happier than those who don’t have to wait at all. People even prefer waiting with the labor illusion to playing an interactive game of tic-tac-toe.

In their research users gave higher satisfaction scores to those services that attempted to show them what was happening in the background even when there was more wait time. In one of their experiments, “each participant booked the same trip through two different sites and received identical results. One site delivered the results instantly but invisibly, whereas the other took either 30 or 60 seconds but showed the labor being done. A majority preferred the transparent—and slower—site.”

There’s one final variation on this theme that was covered by The Atlantic a few years ago. That’s when an application actually purposely slows itself down to give the impression of doing work that actually happens quite quickly. This is what CS professor Eytan Adar coined a “benevolent deception” in 2013. Here’s how Kaveh Waddell at The Atlantic explained it:

Benevolent deceptions can hide uncertainty (like when Netflix automatically loads default recommendations if it doesn’t have the bandwidth to serve personalized ones), mask system hiccups to smooth out a user’s experience (like when a progress bar grows at a consistent rate, even if the process it’s visualizing is stuttering), or help people get used to a new form of technology (like the artificial static that Skype plays during quiet moments in a conversation to convince users the call hasn’t been dropped).

In the article, Waddell describes how TurboTax uses the approach to help make users feel more confident that the computer is actually doing the work they’ve asked it to do. While I’m not sure how I feel about this version of the loader (and know I don’t feel good about many other TurboTax practices), the principle that the more transparent you are with the user about what’s happening the better they feel seems like one worth following. (NRB)

Kickstarter of the day:

The team behind the African Surf brand Mami Wata is running a Kickstarter to create a comprehensive, 300 page, limited edition art book on contemporary African surf culture.  According to Hypebeast “At the time of writing, the brand is attempting to raise £30,000 GBP (approx.. $39,000 USD) to cover the costs of printing and producing the book. Thereafter, all of the profit from future sales will go to a duo of “surf therapy” organizations in Africa: Waves for Change and Surfers Not Street Children.” (CJN)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

PS - Noah here. My company, Variance, is looking for a lead product designer (remote) to join the team. If that’s you or someone you know, please be in touch.

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