Are We There Yet?

Humans aren’t very good at calculating how long things take. Think about your kids moaning in the back seat on a long trip. Or the last time you told somebody you needed just 5 more minutes to finish a project — and by the time you looked at the clock, 20 minutes had passed.

The question, then, is why every “usability expert” says users become frustrated because pages take too long to load. Do they think people have Vulcan abilities like Mr. Spock and can tell how long the page takes to download? Or maybe they think people surf with a stopwatch?

Perhaps what’s more important is how fast the visitor perceives the page load to be. We all know a Web site’s download time is a function of the servers it sits on, the way the HTML is coded, and the size and number of graphics used. You can do a lot to make a Web page technically faster, resulting in a slightly better user experience and maybe a better conversion rate. What the user actually experiences, though, is her unique perception of how long the task she is trying to accomplish takes.

Here are some recommendations on speeding up your pages technically:

  • If your page is designed as one invisible table to control page layout, it will appear to take much longer to load than if the table were split into a series of smaller tables aligned next to and on top of one another. Internet Explorer and Netscape will not display anything inside a table until the whole table is finished loading.

    A research study from Hewlett-Packard Labs concludes that “progressive display is a more satisfactory method of displaying an incoming electronic fax than waiting for a bar-gauge to fill.” The same holds true for Web pages. Try having individual tables for the header, body, and footer, for example. When loading this page, the browser can begin displaying each table as soon as it is received, and people can start trying to complete their tasks.

  • You can also implement standard cascading style sheets (CSS) to remove a great deal of the HTML bulk from the weight of your pages. With CSS you define the colors and sizes using styles. Then as you write your documents, you refer to the styles. So, if you change a certain style it will change the look of your entire site.

    CSS can be written so the user will only need to download it once — in the external style sheet document. When the user surfs the rest of your site, the CSS will be cached on his computer and will, therefore, speed up the loading time.

    Finally, you can lighten up on graphics by using a CSS-defined header tag (

    ) on a reverse-colored cell, rather than a graphic, to make your words stand out. By the way, the search engines will like that better, too.

Although two Web sites may perform identically on a technical level, their perceived download times may be very different from a user’s perspective. Jared Spool from User Interface Engineering conducted an experiment involving 10 different Web sites downloaded over a 56 kbps modem. For each site, he had users rate how fast they felt the site was.

All users rated the speed of the 10 Web sites consistently. Amazon.com, REI.com, and L.L.Bean.com were rated the fastest and About.com the slowest. Despite their having performed different tasks on each of these sites, users were consistent in their reports of perceived speed.

When Spool looked at the actual download speeds of the sites tested, he found no correlation between these and the perceived speeds reported by the users. About.com, rated slowest by the users, was actually the fastest (average: 8 seconds). Amazon.com, rated as one of the fastest sites by users, was really the slowest (average: 36 seconds).

The key finding is seemingly when people accomplish what they set out to do on a site, they perceive that site to be fast. How can we improve our visitor’s perception and use it to improve your conversion rates and return on investment?

Remember, your visitors are focused on trying to complete a task that is relevant to them. If you can’t get users to what they want, how will they ever succeed in their tasks? How you design the navigational elements of your site will determine whether (and when) users have the tools to achieve their goals.

You should regularly mine your Web site logs and on-site search engine to find the most sought-after items on your site. Once you discover what they are, you can display them more prominently. This really ties in to the fact that there’s more to satisfying users than concentrating on usability issues like download time and navigation.

I am certain some designers will use this information as an excuse to gratuitously add graphics to their pages. Please don’t let them! Your goal should be to get your visitors the information they need to complete their task as quickly as possible so they feel like they are accomplishing their tasks immediately. Usability experts will keep screaming for pages to load in 8 to 10 seconds. I’m all for it and won’t disagree. However, truly effective design that takes all the factors of persuasion into account is almost impossible to find.

Even if the entire industry were designing lighter pages, the impact wouldn’t be as substantial as usability experts would have us believe. Design teams need to spend more time focused on how to design for the way we read, the order in which we scan a page, how we categorize, how people buy, and how search engines read pages. They need to learn how to design a call for action, how to write persuasively, and countless other things. Speed is important, but what may be more important is the perception of speed.

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