How the progress bar keeps you sane | Small Thing Big Idea, a TED series

How the progress bar keeps you sane | Small Thing Big Idea, a TED series

Translator: Camille Martínez
Reviewer: Krystian Aparta How many people are bored at their desk for how many hours every day and how many days a week
and how many weeks a year for how many years in their life? [Small thing. Big idea.] [Daniel Engber on
the Progress Bar] The progress bar is just
an indicator on a computer that something’s happening
inside the device. The classic one that’s been used
for years is a horizontal bar. I mean, this goes back
to pre-computer versions of this on ledgers, where people would fill in
a horizontal bar from left to right to show how much of a task
they had completed at a factory. This is just the same thing on a screen. Something happened in the 70s that is sometimes referred
to as “the software crisis,” where suddenly, computers
were getting more complicated more quickly than anyone
had been prepared for, from a design perspective. People were using percent-done
indicators in different ways. So you might have a graphical
countdown clock, or they would have a line of asterisks that would fill out
from left to right on a screen. But no one had done
a systematic survey of these things and tried to figure out: How do they actually affect
the user’s experience of sitting at the computer? This graduate student named Brad Myers, in 1985, decided he would study this. He found that it didn’t really matter if the percent-done indicator
was giving you the accurate percent done. What mattered was
that it was there at all. Just seeing it there
made people feel better, and that was the most surprising thing. He has all these ideas
about what this thing could do. Maybe it could make people
relax effectively. Maybe it would allow people
to turn away from their machine and do something else
of exactly the right duration. They would look and say,
“Oh, the progress bar is half done. That took five minutes. So now I have five minutes
to send this fax,” or whatever people were doing in 1985. Both of those things are wrong. Like, when you see that progress bar, it sort of locks your attention
in a tractor beam, and it turns the experience of waiting into this exciting narrative
that you’re seeing unfold in front of you: that somehow, this time you’ve spent
waiting in frustration for the computer to do something, has been reconceptualized as: “Progress! Oh! Great stuff is happening!” [Progress…] But once you start thinking
about the progress bar as something that’s more
about dulling the pain of waiting, well, then you can start fiddling
around with the psychology. So if you have a progress bar
that just moves at a constant rate — let’s say, that’s really
what’s happening in the computer — that will feel to people
like it’s slowing down. We get bored. Well, now you can start
trying to enhance it and make it appear to move
more quickly than it really is, make it move faster at the beginning,
like a burst of speed. That’s exciting, people feel like,
“Oh! Something’s really happening!” Then you can move back into a more
naturalistic growth of the progress bar as you go along. You’re assuming that people are focusing
on the passage of time — they’re trying to watch grass grow, they’re trying to watch a pot of water,
waiting for it to boil, and you’re just trying
to make that less boring, less painful and less frustrating than it was before. So the progress bar at least gives you the vision of a beginning and an end, and you’re working towards a goal. I think in some ways,
it mitigates the fear of death. Too much?

100 thoughts on “How the progress bar keeps you sane | Small Thing Big Idea, a TED series

  1. Best would be to put a timer on it, or put some Random Facts there that keep people interested like

    1. If you somehow found a way to extract all of the gold from the bubbling core of our lovely little planet, you would be able to cover all of the land in a layer of gold up to your knees.

    2. McDonalds calls frequent buyers of their food “heavy users.”

    3. The average person spends 6 months of their lifetime waiting on a red light to turn green.

    4. The largest recorded snowflake was in Keogh, MT during year 1887, and was 15 inches wide.

    5. You burn more calories sleeping than you do watching television.

    6. There are more lifeforms living on your skin than there are people on the planet.

    7. Southern sea otters have flaps of skin under their forelegs that act as pockets. When diving, they use these pouches to store rocks and food.

    8. In 1386 a pig in France was executed by public hanging for the murder of a child.

    9. One in every five adults believe that aliens are hiding in our planet disguised as humans.

    10. If you believe that you’re truly one in a million, there are still approximately 7,184 more people out there just like you.

    11. A single cloud can weight more than 1 million pounds.

    12. A human will eat on average 70 assorted insects and 10 spiders while sleeping.

    13. James Buchanan, the 15th U.S. president continuously bought slaves with his own money in order to free them.

    14. There are more possible iterations of a game of chess than there are atoms in the known universe.

    15. The average person walks the equivalent of three times around the world in a lifetime.

    16. Men are 6 times more likely to be struck by lightning than women.

    17. Coca-Cola would be green if coloring wasn’t added to it.

    18. You cannot snore and dream at the same time.

  2. nope, not to much.
    totally fucking right.
    i like this guy, thought of it myself, but didnt expect him to say it at the end.

  3. There is nothing worse than progress bars that LIE. The worst offender I have ever seen is when the Windows file explorer shows a green progress bar in the address bar when connecting to network drives. I swear to God it is actually programmed to approach the other end asymptotically. So if your drive never connects, it will just get ever and ever closer to being "done" without ever reaching the other end until a time-out like 10 minutes later.

  4. I once wrote a "Tetris progress bar." The task was so slow that I gave the operator a chance to have a game of Tetris that paused once the task was finished. Oh, how I miss the days of being salaried.

  5. I would love to see progress bars offer a mini-game to pass the time if you have nothing else to do while waiting. A game of snake? A Mario Bros siderunner? A quick round of Tetris? Some quick puzzles from or elsewhere? A progress bar with an entertaining or educational purpose would be as revolutionary as using captchas to transcribe old books.

  6. I am a software developer.

    When I was asked to make a progress bar equivalent, I asked what value am I tracking? How do I know how far to fill the bar? No one could answer me, but they still wanted a 'progress bar'. I balked. A progress bar should show progress, and they didn't have anything for me to track. No. Sorry. That's a stupid idea. They finally said, Okay, how about a spinner. Just something to convince the user that the program hasn't completely locked up. I grudgingly agreed, and ended up using a web program to gin up a GIF animation. It still seemed so stupid to me, but fine, at least I'm not indicating actual progress, just machine state. The animated GIF was just fine for that. As the machine slowed down, the GIF would slow down. As the machine sped up, so would the GIF.

    Fine. Whatever. You're happy, and I don't have to deal with this any more, so I'm happy.

    Well, this video just showed me how wrong I was. Feedback to the user, even if it's something as stupid as a GIF spinner, is still useful. Thanks TED!

  7. "Watching the clock: faster countdowns may make people more patient" —

  8. This said so much about my natural life. I have an imaginary progress bar in my head and If I find myself not progressing I automatically freak out and start doubting my capabilities. ?

  9. Was there a need for this content? Of course, if right, it keeps us sane and makes us free to do other things. What was "SO SURPRISING" about that "discovery"? Your viewers aren't dumb, Ted. Plus, the audacity to say, "Too much?" at the end of the video cracked me up and made me finish his sentence. NONSENSE. Too much nonsense.

  10. That was GREAT. It was seriously, both the most useless(I mean, there are so many other problems in the world and this is just a computer progress bar we're looking at) and the most interesting vid in days. I mean, a progress bar. We see it all the time.

  11. Well duh. Where is the surprise in that? With computers being as unreliable as they are at times, I want to know that the software is actually doing something other than just sitting there. And of course that is reassuring. Because if the program freezes, then the progress bar freezes. The psychological benefit of this gizmo comes from it practical use .
    Can't wait for the progress bar under this video to reach 100% so I can watch something meaningful.

  12. Microsoft is the worst with their "progress bars" that get to the end and then start over. There is no indication that you are nearing completion, just a graphic that runs over and over, killing time while the computer does whatever.

  13. It is frustrating to see it slow down halfway through. Don’t make it go a third of the speed it was going at the beginning. Make it go at 70% of the initial speed.

  14. The study is old! Now that we’ve grown up with it, we know not to trust it. It’s not exciting or hopeful, it’s flipping frustrating

  15. While watching Ted videos the ongoing duration bar tells me that I am constantly learning something. Even if it's the explanation of some sort of minuscule things that we usually don't think about.

  16. I'll be honest with you when the progress bar has the little writing on top like "initializing x_heibe…" or "downloading useful.txt…" and it sometimes goes super fast, and you cant even read the text, thats the most satisfying thing. Normal progress bars just leave me curious about what my computer is doing, and eventually leaves me to be frustrated.

  17. On a deeper level, we are all Born with a virtual Progress bar that has no numbers, could fill up anytime then its all over 🙂

  18. In many cases the progress bar doesn’t mean much.. so often on PC (especially) and sometimes Mac systems, the progress bar will take its longest when it hits 100%!! I usually ignore them and go for a coffee!

  19. That's why the same way it's satisfactory to see the progression, it's very frustrating to see when it reaches 101%. It's all about expectation alignment and trust!

  20. A common failure in design is that people use the progress bar as a measure of time remaining, whereas many developers turn it into a measure of tasks complete. eg1 If the last 10% of the progress bar takes 90% of the time to complete, then its a flawed design. eg2 If the progress bar takes a long time to move because the current task is really big, then the a bar that isn't moving indicates both a large task and a task that has frozen. Without context, a progress bar is useless.

  21. I always felt that the way people feel about progress bars or loading symbols was linked to the human need to quantify progression. When we do something or wait for something with no discernable change we become uneasy. When there is something that tells us that there is a change and that there is a definite goal to this change that will be reached (either by letting time pass or by doing certain things) humans can focus better on the task. Think of it as a game. Say you have two of the exact same RPG. In the first RPG (let's call it RPGA) you have the conventional quantification of status and skills, in the second game (this one called RPGB) all that quantification happens still, but you give the players no indication aside from when they achieve a goal or attain a skill (no experience bars, no mana gauges, no hp bar, no status numbers to quantify their strengths and weaknesses but they still have them). If you were to play the traditional game, you are able to focus on raising certain things quite easily. When you do an action the game indicates through numbers that there is a discernable effect from your actions (i.e. gaining exp, raising skill exp, progress towards a quest). Now in game RPGB, you don't have any indicators. You get the exp still, but you don't know how much. You can raise all those skills in the same manner but you don't know how long you'll have to keep going to get it to level up. The person playing would no longer have confidence that what they are doing is making a difference in a direction that they want things to progress towards, or even if there is any progress at all. How long do I have to do something to raise this now? This difference in knowledge changes the experience completely. When you are presented with data that indicates that what you are doing effects something, even if that means just waiting for a set amount of time to get something done, you are confident that there is change happening. When you don't have any indication that something is happening, even if you know it should be, you feel concerned that maybe it's not doing what it should be doing.

    At least that's my take on the progress bar.

  22. I'd prefer a progress bar that's giving me accurate information over one that's "telling me an interesting story" all day!

  23. This is the reason why I use "rsync –info=progress2" instead of plain "cp". It's really frustating to copy GBs of files and not knowing whether it's near ending or not

  24. The progress bar is there to say "The computer hasn't frozen or crashed. You should still wait for it rather than force-quitting the application."

  25. To me it's just an indicator that my computer is doing something. If the bar doesn't pop up then I know it didn't initiate the command. I don't dealt care how long it takes I just don't want to be sitting around forever wondering if the task had been done.

  26. sorry but I think your wrong I have been using pc's for 3 decades and its more to show that your pc is just actually doing something and not froze and you need to restart because as long as its moving your not waiting in vein

  27. My favorite was a flash game that once it hit 100% it broke through the end and in big letters, "We're giving you 110%". A little extra load time, but I was laughing. Most enjoyable loading bar.

  28. The idea of a progress bar not being an accurate representation of progress made or time remaining but instead being repurposed as some kind of tool for psychological manipulation or entertainment is infuriating. … But it also explains a lot.

  29. I want to squash the guy who created the progress bar that lies! Give us the truth u bastards! Time is money!

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