☞ Progress Bars and Reticulating Splines

Failure Modes and Technology

Progress bars are fascinating: where they are used, what they look like, and sometimes even their tenuous connection to what might actually be happening inside the computer.

For example, as per this discussion of progress bars, one advance in this realm incorporated “a loading bar that had nothing to do with how much work the computer had done…It would always start off slow, to set your expectations for a fairly long wait, and then speed up at the end, so that you end up feeling pleasantly surprised.” Here’s more on lying progress bars.

Which reminds me of one of my favorite stories about misleading user interfaces:

In the 1960s, the hardware that comprised the byzantine switching systems of the first electronic phone networks would occasionally cause a misdial. Instead of revealing the mistake by disconnecting or playing an error message, engineers decided the least obtrusive way to handle these glitches was to allow the system to go ahead and patch the call through to the wrong number. Adar says most people just assumed the error was theirs, hung up, and redialed. “The illusion of an infallible phone system was preserved,” he writes in the paper.

Nevertheless, rather than leaning towards deception, others have tried to make progress bars more useful. From Why Is This Interesting, which explored progress bars:

While it’s easy to think of the situations where we were thoughtlessly left to stare at some animated loader that left us with no indication of progress, there’s another kind of loader that we’ve almost certainly experienced without giving it much thought. In this scenario, rather than simply letting users know how much time is left in their task, the animation actually attempts to communicate what the server is doing while you’re waiting. This was made famous by the flight search sites who now seem to have mostly abandoned the practice. If you remember, they would attempt to show you the different airlines they were checking with and stops they calculated to help make your wait time feel a bit more manageable.

And according to research, they noted that “users gave higher satisfaction scores to those services that attempted to show them what was happening in the background even when there was more wait time.”

In the end, I think we need to be aware of what is happening in our machines, at least a bit. When we are unaware of failures, bad things can happen. As per John Gruber: “Everyone knows error messages are bad, but the reason they’re bad is the error part, not the message part. Not reporting errors just makes everything worse, by pretending that the errors aren’t even happening.”

In the end, perhaps the best display is either a peek under the hood at what is truly happening or just simply providing delight: hello “reticulating splines.”


A few things worth checking out:

Until next month.

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