The psychology of waiting (and 5 things you can do to make online checkout feel faster)

Americans spend an estimated 37 billion hours per year waiting in lines. That’s 118 hours per person (including babies, though I have no idea what they’re standing in lines for), which is pretty mindblowing. So it’s not surprising that there’s a large – and growing – field of research dedicated to studying the psychology of waiting. A recent trip down this research rabbit hole yielded some interesting insights about in-store versus online waiting.

In-store waiting vs. online waiting

As I wrote in a recent post on the Radware blog, 70% of online shopping carts are abandoned before checkout. A recent survey of US shoppers found that slow load times was the number one cause for half of those abandoned carts. Unfortunately, there aren’t comparable numbers for in-store shopping cart abandonment (the only measurement tool a bricks-and-mortar store has is a security camera that counts foot traffic and compares it with number of purchases), but it’s safe to hazard a guess that it’s not as high as 70%.

When it comes to standing in checkout lines, there are a few other points of dissimilarity between in-store shoppers and online shoppers:

In-store Online
A variety of potential service systems (first-come-first-served, single server vs. multiple servers, reservation-based, express line options, etc.) Perception of instantaneous service
Can see lineup(s) and estimate wait time (however erroneously) Cannot estimate transaction time in advance
Can exercise several choices when faced with perceived slow lineups: refuse to enter, enter but leave before checkout, or jockey among different lineups Only one option when faced with long wait times: abandon cart
Can be influenced by friendliness of checkout staff, which mitigates negative impact of standing in line Cannot be influenced by a friendly “Thanks for your order” confirmation page


However, both types of shopper do have one thing in common:

In-store Online
Associates long wait times with poor customer service, which negatively affects likelihood of returning Associates long wait times with poor customer service, which negatively affects likelihood of returning

In short, the online checkout process is characterized by uncertainty.

This is caused by relative lack of feedback about your transaction status, coupled with a lack of choice in terms of how you can respond to long wait times. In a physical store, you know the line is going to move eventually, and that if you get desperate you can hop on another line. If a page hangs during an online transaction, it introduces uncertainty that you’ll ever be able to complete your purchase. (In one survey, 44% of respondents said that page slowdowns during checkout made them anxious about the success of the transaction.) And line jockeying isn’t an option on the internet.

Shopping cart anxiety

Common-sense things we know about waiting…

  • As waiting time increases, satisfaction decreases.
  • As perceived or recalled wait duration increases, the wait becomes less acceptable.

Obvious-sounding stuff, right? These findings more or less make sense because they appeal to what we believe to be our common sense.

However, common sense is pretty thin on the ground…

…as you see when you look at the larger body of wait time research. We’re riddled with irrational feelings about waiting:

Infographic: How internet users perceive time

And best of all:

  • Even if we go into a transaction knowing our tendency to be prey to the illusions described above, most of us will still fall prey to them.


If you’re visiting this blog, you obviously care about delivering a better experience to whoever your users are. You’re probably already working to make your pages faster – through applying optimization best practices, deploying a CDN, etc. That’s a crucial beginning. But there’s more.

1. See what your users see: Mentally increase your measurement numbers by 35%.

Understand that the start render time (or load time, or whatever performance metric you focus on) numbers that you see in your performance measurement data may be the real picture, but your real picture doesn’t match your users’ perceived picture. If your pages load in 5 seconds, the average user remembers it as feeling like closer to 7 seconds.

2. Ensure that every page in the transaction is fast.

A lot of site owners focus on optimizing their landing pages and product pages, but as this case study shows, slowing down pages later in a transaction can cause the abandonment rate to jump from 67% to 80%. Every page matters.

3. Better yet, simplify the transaction process down to a single page.

Implementing one-click checkout, like Amazon, is one way to to this. Another is to build your checkout as a single-page application using Ajax, so that resource requests and responses happen in the background, beyond the user’s notice.

4. Know when to use spinners and progress bars.

And know how to design them. (Also know when not to use them. A progress bar on a page that loads in less than 5 seconds will actually make that page feel slower.) There are some solid best practices here.

5. Make the perceived value match (or better, surpass) the wait.

If long wait times are necessary, ensure that you’re delivering something that has value that’s commensurate with the wait. A good example of this is travel websites. When you’re searching for the best hotel rates, most of us don’t mind waiting several seconds. We rationalize the wait because we assume that the engine is searching a massive repository of awesome travel deals in order to give us the very best results.

I’m still deep in this rabbit hole. If you have any more good research to throw down, I’d love to check it out.

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