On speed, trust and expectations

In user experience, how long is a button press is the new ‘how long is a piece of string’. You need to know what you need the string (button) for before determining how long it needs to be.

The time I am particularly interested in looking at is:

the time between the user clicking/ tapping on an area and the moment the intended result appears, including loading states.

I have found that this time is directly related to the trust a user places in the action.

Example 1: A restaurant-finding website

A user selects certain search criteria, clicks search. Within less than a second the website would directly show thousands of results. The engineers had worked really hard to get it to work this fast, they were proud of their work. However, in user testing, the team found that people didn’t trust the results they were shown. How can a website find so many results on the internet that quickly. Surely there was some fakery going on. Luckily the team listened to the user testing and added a fake loading state to indicate to their user that their engine was crawling the websites and doing a really rigorous job to find the absolute best price for the user.

Example 2: A document comparison software

The user selects two documents and hits ‘compare’. A loading bar would appear until the documents were fully compared. If the document was complex and long — and somehow people who use comparison software generally have complex and long documents — the comparison would take a long time, sometimes over a minute. Again the time it took to compare did not align with the users’ expectations. They would start to mistrust a comparison that took too long. They felt the software had frozen and was struggling to produce the right results. This gave the engineers extra motivation to make the comparison engine run faster.

It seems that the users’ trust is very dependent on their expectation of time, anything slower or faster will start to look fake or unreliable. I was wondering where these expectations come from — because who actually knows how long a crawler takes? I believe that all of the digital experiences users have, be it on their phone or at a ticket machine build a sort of understanding of how quickly a computer can process, and as we become accustomed to different pieces of tech, our expectations evolve. Which means that our products have to evolve with them.

For me, this points to two key ideas:

  • User testing is crucial — it’s not always about making transitions faster, but about meeting the user’s expectation of speed. Only user testing will confront you with real results.
  • Your product is not only competing with direct competitors. The user’s expectations of speed come from their daily interaction with apps, websites and tools completely unrelated to your product.

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