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Perceptions of time

If you’ve ever been to a Disney theme park, then you’ve experienced firsthand the magic of Disney—not just in the shows and rides, but in how lines are handled. Disney’s “imagineers” have perfected ways to make a long wait seem shorter, with some lines so elaborately designed that it’s hard to tell where the line ends and the ride begins. Through distractions and illusions, the experience of waiting in long lines may not seem so bad.

Along the same lines (no pun intended), consider preloaders and progress bars. Given that a download will take the same amount of time in all cases, are there different preloaders that would seem to take less time?

The magazine New Scientist ran an experiment in which at least nine variations on the progress bar used to monitor Web downloads were tested. It was found that:

  • Pulses that become more frequent as the bar progresses create the illusion that it’s moving faster.
  • Bars filled with ripples heading left make a progress bar appear to move faster.

The magazine found that “by using an effective illusion, it can seem like a file is downloading 11 percent quicker than it really is.”

I’ve observed a similar illusion with different kinds of preloaders. Our brains tend to count cycles, not seconds. Consider two preloaders that involve a clear, cyclic routine. I believe that a slower cycle would make time appear to pass faster. Why? It might only make it through two complete cycles in a five-second period. Contrast that with a much faster spinner that we tire of much sooner because it’s faster.

We know that speed is in the eye of the beholder. While engineers toil away shaving off two milliseconds from a load time, what might we gain by creating preloaders that buy us more time?

“…something that takes longer but that is perceived to be efficient is superior to something that is shorter but perceived differently.”

—DONALD NORMAN

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