Why Some Web Sites Make You Wait

Last Updated Apr 13, 2011 10:09 PM EDT

Call it what you will-the spinning beachball, the pinwheel-but almost no one likes seeing it appear on their computer screen. Once that things shows up, you could be waiting for a long time-or everything could be just fine. There's no real way of knowing. The progress bar and the hourglass are just as bad.

Some new research from Harvard Business School points the way to making Web site delays a bit more bearable, and shows how, ironically, they can even be used to improve users' perceptions of a site.

Ryan W. Buell and Michael I. Norton recreated a popular online travel site, but changed all the branding so the test subjects didn't recognize it. They asked the subjects to search for certain plane tickets. Some people got their results immediately, and some had to wait up to a minute for them. While the computer was 'working,' some of the test subjects saw a continually changing list of which sites were being searched, as well as an animation of the fares being 'found.' Others saw just a nondescript progress bar. Participants were then asked a variety of questions about the travel site.

Sites That "Work"
Turns out it pays to answer the question "What is taking so long?" Here's what the researchers found:
  • Speed matters. Without being given a progress report, faster is indeed better. People rated the site higher if they got instanteous service rather than having to wait.
  • The progress report makes the service seem more valuable. Participants rated the service more valuable, regardless of wait time, if they got a progress report.
  • A progress report makes the wait seem worthwhile. People who had to wait 30 to 60 seconds for their results, but who got a progress report, rated the service more highly than people who got their results right away.
  • Web sites should show the work. People who saw a list of sites that the travel service would search did think the site was doing more 'work' than people who had no information about how their fares were being found.
  • If the service is poor, a progress report doesn't help. The researchers conducted a similar experiment using a fake online dating site. If people didn't like their matches, no amount of progress reports would help. In fact, if people thought their 'best match' was unattractive, the site was rated more favorably if it didn't display a progress report.
Do you think customers care about what's going on behind the scenes? Or do they just want their product or service to perform well, regardless?

RELATED Image courtesy of flickr user conskeptical
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.

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