By now everyone is familiar with the mantra ‘web performance and customer satisfaction/revenue generation go hand in hand.’ End users now expect fast websites and will abandon yours if it is perceived to be slow.
Earlier this year, The NYT published an article stating that 250 ms is now the magical distinguishing number for web performance. An end-user will choose a competing website over yours if your site is slower by more than 250 ms. Joshua Bixby of Strangeloops wrote a follow-up blog post that explained a little more behind the neuroscience of needing a fast website. He attributed some of the cause to a necessity for seamless interaction and to overcome memory limitations, without which, we are subject to “web stress”.
So web users are able to detect 250 ms differences and this makes us selective. We also experience stress and memory lapses when our flow is interrupted waiting for a “slow” site to render. But these cannot be the source of our expectation of fast websites.
It wasn’t until recently that the user expectations of a site speed changed. In 2000, if a page took longer than 10 seconds, users would be frustrated and leave. In 2009, end users did not wait more than 2 seconds for retail sites to load. What happened between 2000 and now? Where/when/how did we learn this demand for an instant web and what does it really mean to expect a fast website?
Wait, What Dog?
The first piece of this “need for speed” puzzle can be attributed to Ivan Pavlov, the famous Russian psychologist who loved to tease his dog. Pavlov rang a bell every time before presenting his dog with food and feeding him. When the dog detected the food, the dog would always start drooling. Before long, the dog was conditioned to know that the bell signaled food was on its way and would start salivating at the tone of bell, even when no food was in sight.
This Stimulus -> Reward training is known as Conditioning or Reinforcement Learning and is not unique to humans – both higher- and lower-order organisms as well as many Artificial Intelligence algorithms exhibit this type of “a predicts b” learning behavior. Therefore, this learning must be driven by something deeper, more primitive than cognitive thinking; some process must be in place that we cannot consciously recognize.
The Pavlov study raises the question, is it possible that clicking GO in the address bar is stimulus for us to know that the reward, our information we are seeking, is on its way? Are we now somehow conditioned to expect the information within some magic interval of time?
Stay tuned Part II of Why We Expect Fast Websites.