How Web Designers Manipulate Our Perception of Time

loadingYour website’s design matters more than you might think. Almost half (46%) of Internet users say that their number one criterion in determining the credibility of a company is looking to its web design. The trouble is that you can’t just design a site that you think looks good. It requires more thought. For instance, did you know that it’s wise to keep 40% of your graphic space empty?

There are a number of factors to consider when developing an engaging website. One of the most important features of a well-designed site is usability. The modern consumer expects convenience and speed. If a website is slow to load, users won’t hesitate to go elsewhere.

Loading time can vary depending on the user’s browser, location, network, time of day, or type of device. With all of these variables stacked against you, loading speed is more or less out of your control. What you can control, however, is the perception of waiting time, and skilled web designers are getting better and better at doing just that.

“Our sense of time is surprisingly easy to manipulate whether it’s actual duration or the order in which things happen,” said Stanford neuroscientist David Eagleman.

Waiting for a webpage to load is stressful and frustrating. However, there are several things web designers can do to make that wait a lot more bearable.

“Uncertainty is a disease, and information is usually the cure, particularly with software,” said Steve Seow, author of Designing and Engineering Time.

Seow is talking about easing the user’s so-called “wait hate” with a guarantee that progress is being made. Even the use of a simple gradually filling circle to convey progress of a download can go a long way towards keeping frustration at bay.

Distractions are helpful as well. For the same reason, elevators have mirrors and traffic lights employ non-functioning crosswalk buttons. Using an image or animation works to distract users during long loading times. The distraction makes the time feel like it’s going by faster.

One researcher at Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute discovered that certain styles of progress bars can alter perceived wait times. He found that a visually augmented progress bar with backwards flowing ribbing actually made wait times seem 11% faster than they really were.

On the other hand, there are certain animations that have become synonymous with long wait times, such Apple’s spinning rainbow “wheel of doom.” The appearance of this animation provokes anger among users, making time feel even longer.

Eagleman noted that as humans, we are “constantly recalibrating our sense of time to various environmental cues, as well as our own expectations and tolerances.”

Fortunately, designers have become increasingly skilled at manipulating our perceptions.

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