Psychology and Web Performance: Some quick facts and ideas

I’ll be the first person to admit that I’m no expert on the psychology of web performance. But I am a person who uses the web regularly, and I’ve had my fair share of emotional responses to online experiences, good and bad, and I have my own pet theories about them. As you probably do, too. And if you’re anything like me, you find these visceral reactions fascinating — if only as reflections of our own fascinating selves. :)

But as I said, I’m not an expert on any of this. That’s why I’ve asked Stoyan Stefanov, whose Psychology of Performance session was incredibly popular at the recent Velocity conference, to let me interview him for an upcoming post. Right now I’m doing some research and working on my questions, and wanted to jot down a few interesting things I’ve learned.

In a recent post on website response times, usability guru Jakob Nielsen said that human responses to poor load times is based on two aspects of how we operate:

  1. Poor short-term memory - Information stored in our short-term memory decays quickly, which is why we don’t perform as well when we have to wait, even for just a few seconds.
  2. Need to feel in control - Being forced to wait makes us feel powerless and frustrated.

He went on to break down our reactions to page delays into specific time increments:

  • 0.1 seconds gives us the illusion of instantaneous response.
  • 1 second keeps our flow of though seamless.
  • 10 seconds keeps out attention, just barely.
  • After 10 seconds, we start thinking about other things, making it harder to get back into our task when the website finally responds.

Lenny Rachitsky frequently lectures on issues surrounding downtime and transparency, and much of what he speaks and writes about centres around what makes people tick. In a recent post on his blog, he quoted this article about the concept of “learned helplessness”:

The concept of learned helplessness was developed in the 1960s and 1970s by Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania. He found that animals receiving electric shocks, which they had no ability to prevent or avoid, were unable to act in subsequent situations where avoidance or escape was possible. Extending the ramifications of these findings to humans, Seligman and his colleagues found that human motivation [...] is undermined by a lack of control over one’s surroundings.

In other words, the less control that people have over their environment, they less they care about outcomes. In other other words, if you design a site that makes users feel out of control, they will not care about completing their goals on your site.

And a few thoughts from Stoyan’s blog:

“When people perceive that you exceed expectations, they are happy and everything is fast and pleasurable. So you have to care about how users perceive your page load time and also what their expectations were. Naturally, both of these are subjective to begin with.”

“…time also flows differently depending on the age – perceived 3 minutes for a 20 year old are in reality 3:03 and for a 60 year old 3 minutes are in reality 3:40.”

“There’s a fascinating study (and podcast) that claim ‘the truth about download time’. The findings were that when people complete their task they perceive the site as fast, although it may be slower than another site that frustrated them.”

“But still, the findings that task completion determines you speed perception is fascinating and something to keep in mind when designing user interactions. If you bog down the user with pages and pages of lengthy forms with insanely strict and annoying validation, then no amount of super fast page loading will cause the people judge your site fast.”

Do you know of any studies or sources relating to site speed and human psychology? Let me know.

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