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    Why progress bars can make you feel better

    December 07, 2019

    We are all familiar with the spinning wheels and download indicators that signify when our electronic devices are “working”, but are they making us fall for the “labour illusion”?

    By William Park
    For a brief period of time in 2013, Samantha West was the hardest working employee of Premier Health Plans. She set up more deals than any other individual who worked at the insurance company. She was prolific – the chances are that if you made an enquiry, Samantha would be the person who gave you a call. And she did all of this while remaining infectiously upbeat and pleasant to deal with every single day. Then, overnight, Samantha disappeared.

    You have probably guessed already that Samantha is not real. Or at least, she is an actress playing a part. Specifically, Samantha was a series of pre-recorded stock responses that operators could play from a soundboard. She asked fairly basic questions about callers’ insurance details and made pleasant small talk before passing them on to another operator. She could not, however, adequately answer whether she was or was not a robot, and it was this that led to her disappearance.

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    A reporter at Time magazine was the first to notice how odd Samantha was. “Hey, are you a robot?” asks the reporter in a recording of one of their conversations. “Ha ha, what?” says Samantha. “No, I am a real person!” The stress on the word “am” is interesting. While Samantha has answered the question in a fashion, perhaps her answer would be more appropriate for another question: “You are not a real person, are you?” The reporter continues: “Just say ‘I’m not a robot’ please.” After a brief silence, Samantha replies: “I am a real person.” She sounds quite upset.

    A group of people wait on a train platform (Credit: Alamy)
    Waiting without any indication of how long this dead time might be can be extremely frustrating so designers have sought ways of adding value to this time (Credit: Alamy)

    The day after this story was first picked up in the US media, Samantha was out of work. Unsurprisingly, we really dislike finding out we have been misled. Our desire for authenticity is understandable as it ties into our notion of trust.

    In this case, the illusion of having an authentic two-way conversation with another human – rather than being passed through a menu of pre-defined scripts at the click of a button – wasn’t so convincing. But there is a good chance that you have been misled online at least once already today, probably without you even realising it. If you downloaded some software, tried to stream a video or even conducted an internet search, you’ve more than likely been taken in by one of the most widespread fibs of our modern age.

    We like to see real work being done and we value it more, even when the end result is the same
    The spinning wheels, rotating egg timers and moving progress bars we regularly see on our screens when using our electronic devices are often misleading. Rather than offering an accurate representation of work being done, they are more often than not simply there to give the impression that something is happening behind the scenes. They provide us with a sense that we are not waiting in vain for something to happen.

    And there is a fundamental reason for this: we like to see real work being done. In fact, we value it more, even when the end result is the same.

    Ryan Buell, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, studies how we value the work we see being done. Perhaps this is most clearly illustrated in restaurants where customers can see chefs working in the kitchen. Diners rated the quality of food from those restaurants as 22% higher than the same food when they could not see it being prepared.

    Seeing someone preparing our food builds anticipation that means we enjoy the end product more. This effect extends to the digital world, too. Buell has found that search engines that appear to be transparent about what they are doing in the background are deemed to provide better quality answers.

    Waiters at a kitchen window at a busy restaurant in China (Credit: Getty Images)
    Being able to see chefs as they prepare your food can have a surprising effect on how you rate its quality when you finally eat (Credit: Getty Images)

    Comparison websites are a good example of this. Some travel comparison sites will tell users which online marketplaces they are searching as they scrape flight and hotel information together. Insurance comparison sites will often update the prices they display on screen in a “live” way as they conduct a search.

    These all provide a sense that “work” is being done even though what is actually happening behind the scenes of a website is fairly abstract to most people. Buell’s research shows that customers like this kind of openness – something he calls “operational transparency”. Consumers put a higher value on the results from websites that show what they are doing, than ones that remain opaque, regardless of whether the results are in fact better.

    But this idea of “hard work” is a myth. These algorithms search thousands of sites in fractions of a second – no one is breaking a sweat over this work. And yet, if we are shown the apparent “effort” they put in, it can still affect the way we see the results they produce, much like watching a chef stood over a stove in the kitchen preparing our food. Buell calls this the “labour illusion”.

    Progress bars predate the operational transparency of search engines, but have some similarities.

    “They are there because in the absence of progress bars people don't know when the service is going to be delivered,” says Buell. What makes them frustrating is that they have the potential to fluctuate wildly. Progress bars that track uploads or downloads from the internet, the type that most of us are familiar with, often estimate the time remaining based on the average upload or download speed over the past few minutes. Should that speed change, then suddenly your estimate of a few minutes might jump up at a moment’s notice.

    A progress bar on an Apple iPad (Credit: Alamy)
    Progress bars were devised as a way of helping consumers judge how long loading times or downloads might take, but they are often inaccurate (Credit: Alamy)

    Equally, installing software will vary from machine to machine depending on the available RAM – whereas a progress bar might estimate based on an average machine.

    So what decisions went into the innovation of the progress bar? It’s likely that accuracy was not at the forefront of designers’ minds. “When I have talked to designers about this, what they are trying to do is create an experience rather than an accurate representation of time,” says Jason Farman, author of Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting From the Ancient World to the Instant World.

    Another frustration Farman identifies is when progress stalls at 99%. Do downloads stop at this figure more often than others? Probably not, he says, we just notice it more when it happens. “We don't pay attention to the middle piece of the download, 99% means you’re done. It calls attention to itself. When you notice your time you pay attention in a different kind of way.” And being aware of waiting is the most painful kind of dead time.

    Services could take advantage of the labour illusion to, intentionally or otherwise, trick us into valuing their service more
    This has led designers to think carefully about how to represent pauses. According to data presented at a conference in 2014, Facebook redesigned the loading animation in its app as a result of user behaviour. They noticed that their custom animation (three lines increasing in size from left to right that pulsed to represent progress) led users to associate a slow service with Facebook, compared to a universal spinning wheel, which users associated with their device or their internet being slow. Because the spinning wheel is ubiquitous, the theory is that we don’t make specific associations with it. Here, the designers’ prerogative was to redirect frustrations away from Facebook, rather than improve the transparency of what was going on.

    In online video players, spinning wheels are a common way to represent buffering. Why do they all look the same? “It is an odd choice,” says Farman. “Part of it is the complexity.” Video players have little option but to hide the mechanics of the slow service – and buffering usually only occurs for a few seconds. However, these seconds can be very important. Five seconds of buffering is enough to cause 20% of viewers to quit. After 10 seconds, 50% will leave and after 20 seconds, it goes up to 70%.

    A woman waiting for food being prepared at a street stall (Credit: Getty Images)
    Food stalls are the most obvious example of the labour illusion at work, but websites can also take advantage of it to make users value their services more (Credit: Getty Images)

    The other side to this coin is that services could take advantage of the labour illusion to, intentionally or otherwise, trick us into valuing their service more, like the diners watching the chef in action.

    Complex searches, such as those done by travel sites, can take time. They have to continually update their results as currency exchange rates fluctuate, while hotels and airlines with out-of-date websites slow down results. Dynamic pricing – updating as demand goes up and down – further complicates matters. Without the resources available to Google, smaller sites’ searches take a noticeable amount of time.

    “Companies think about what they can do with that time,” says Buell. “They can advertise to you and create another revenue stream.” A website designer has a choice, then; do you want to create the illusion of value through operational transparency, or look for alternative sources of revenue, like adverts?

    Buell’s investigations into operational transparency online raises an interesting question: why do more sites not use this approach?

    “There are a couple of reasons why it has not been adopted,” says Buell. “You can’t imagine Google is going to be slowing the service down and showing you the work: Google doesn’t need to do that. They are constantly crawling the internet to show you results in fractions of a second.”

    The quality of the results also changes the effectiveness of operational transparency. “Showing behind the scenes is good if it leads to good results,” says Buell. “But the opposite is [also] true.”

    For example, Buell created fake online dating sites and manipulated the quality of the profiles that users were matched to. Showing users how they were being matched – on age, height, hobbies, personalities, etc – before revealing attractive profiles led to higher satisfaction. But showing the working followed by unfavourable profiles led people to rate the service very poorly. Users were also less impressed with slow and poor results than fast and poor results. Perhaps the feeling that the site had to “work hard” to find those matches made people think that the quality of the profiles available was very low or that it should have produced better results following the “effort” it put in.

    A queue of people waiting to use an ATM (Credit: Alamy)
    People value the services more when they can see work being done so some ATMs use animations while people wait for their cash (Credit: Alamy)

    When this sort of manipulation is uncovered in the real world, it is unlikely to be received well, as the case of Samantha West reveals. Automated call centres seem to be ripe for this. In one example, the Apple telephone support dubbed in the sound of a human typing while it was processing the customers’ answers to automated questions, perhaps offering reassurance that their responses were being logged and analysed, which is a form of audio labour illusion.

    Samantha West was a type of “mechanical Turk” – a machine that masquerades as a fully automated robot, but is operated by a human. Her purpose was to allow operators for whom English was not their first language, and who might not have spoken clearly enough for some callers, to pose as an American woman. By selecting from predefined responses, they could just about hold a normal conversation. It all came undone, of course, when a caller went off script.

    True robotic operators are perhaps not that far away. Google Duplex is a service that allows simple transactions, like booking a table at a restaurant, to be automated by a robot. All of this raises the question of whether we will value a convincing human-like operator over more transparently robotic services given what we know about the “labour illusion”.

    “Customers felt they were caught up in a deception,” says Buell of the Premier Health Plans debacle. “They completely undermined their trust. Just as showing hidden work can be value, and engender trust, if you misuse it, it can drive customers away.”
    What is the best way to speed-read?
    Most of us tend to think of time as linear, absolute and constantly “running out” – but is that really true? And how can we change our perceptions to feel better about its passing?
    Claudia Hammond
    “Time” is the most frequently used noun in the English language. We all know what it feels like as time passes. Our present becomes the past as soon as it’s happened; today soon turns into yesterday. If you live in a temperate climate, each year you see the seasons come and go. And as we reach adulthood and beyond, we become increasingly aware of the years flashing by.

    Although neuroscientists have been unable to locate a single clock in brain that is responsible for detecting time passing, humans are surprisingly good at it. If someone tells us they’re arriving in five minutes, we have a rough idea of when to start to look out for them. We have a sense of the weeks and months passing by. As a result, most of us would say that how time functions is fairly obvious: it passes, at a consistent and measurable rate, in a specific direction – from past to future.

    Of course, the human perspective of time may not be exclusively biological, but rather shaped by our culture and era. The Amondawa tribe in the Amazon, for example, has no word for “time” – which some say means they don’t have a notion of time as a framework in which events occur. (There are debates over whether this is purely a linguistic argument, or whether they really do perceive time differently.) Meanwhile, it’s hard to know with scientific precision how people conceived of time in the past, as experiments in time perception have only been conducted for the last 150 years.

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    What we do know is that Aristotle viewed the present as something continually changing and that by the year 160, the Roman emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius was describing time as a river of passing events. And in the West, at least, many would still identify with these ideas.

    But physics tells a different story. However much time feels like something that flows in one direction, some scientists beg to differ.


    If memories were fixed like videotapes then imagining a new situation would be tricky (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/Getty Images/Alamy)

    In the last century, Albert Einstein’s discoveries exploded our concepts of time. He showed us that time is created by things; it wasn’t there waiting for those things to act within it. He demonstrated that time is relative, moving more slowly if an object is moving fast. Events don’t happen in a set order. There isn’t a single universal “now”, in the sense that Newtonian physics would have it.

    It is true that many events in the Universe can be put into sequential order – but time is not always segmented neatly into the past, the present and the future. Some physical equations work in either direction.

    One aspect of time perception many of us share is how we think of our own past: as a kind of giant video library, an archive we can dip into to retrieve records of events in our lives
    A few theoretical physicists, such as the best-selling writer and physicist Carlo Rovelli take it even further, speculating that time neither flows, nor even exists. It is an illusion.

    Of course, although some physicists propose that time does not exist, time perception – our sense of time – does. This is why the evidence from physics is at odds with how life feels. Our shared idea of what the concept of “future” or “past” mean may not apply to everything everywhere in the Universe, but it does reflect the reality of our lives here on Earth.

    Like the Newtonian idea of absolute time, however, our belief in how time works for humans can also be misleading. And there may be a better approach.

    False pasts

    One aspect of time perception many of us share is how we think of our own past: as a kind of giant video library, an archive we can dip into to retrieve records of events in our lives.

    But psychologists have demonstrated that autobiographical memory is not like that at all. Most of us forget far more than we remember, sometimes forgetting events happened at all, despite others’ insistence that we were there. On occasion even the reminder does nothing to jog our memories.

    As we lay down memories, we alter them to make sense of what’s happened. Every time we recall a memory, we reconstruct the events in our mind and even change them to fit in with any new information that might have come to light. And it’s much easier than you might think to convince people that they have had experiences which never happened. The psychologist Elisabeth Loftus has done decades of research on this, persuading people they remember kissing a giant green frog or that they once met Bugs Bunny in Disneyland (as he’s a Warner Bros character, so this can’t have happened). Even recounting an anecdote to our friends can mean our memory of that story goes back into the library slightly altered.


    People can be peruaded to "remember" events that never happened to them (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/ Getty Images)

    Another mistake we make is to assume that imagining the future is completely different from thinking about the past. In fact, the two processes are linked. We recruit similar parts of the brain to reminisce or to picture our lives in years to come. It is the possession of our memories that permits us to imagine a future, remixing scenes to preview future events in a window in the mind. This skill allows us to make plans and to try out different hypothetical possibilities before we commit.


    These curious sensations occur as a result of the way our brains deal with time. A baby, with little by way of autobiographical memory, lives constantly in the present. She’s happy. She’s crying. She’s hungry. She’s miserable. A baby experiences all this, but doesn’t think back to how cold it was last month or worry that temperature might drop again soon.

    Then gradually a toddler will begin to develop a sense of self. With that development comes an understanding of time, of yesterday as distinct from tomorrow.

    Time is not only at the heart of the way we organise life, but the way we experience it
    Even at that age, though, imagining one’s self in the future remains a challenge. The psychologist Janie Busby Grant found that if you ask three-year-olds what they might do the following day, only a third can give an answer judged to be plausible. When the psychologist Cristina Atance gave small children some pretzels to eat followed by the option of more pretzels or some water, it won’t surprise you to learn that, thirsty after eating the salt, most chose water. But when she asked them what they would like to have when they came back the next day, most still opted for water. (Adults chose pretzels, knowing that by tomorrow they will feel hungry again.) Very small children are unable to imagine themselves in a future where they might feel differently than they do in this moment.

    The experience of time is actively created by our minds. Various factors are crucial to this construction of the perception of time – memory, concentration, emotion and the sense we have that time is somehow located in space. Our time perception roots us in our mental reality. Time is not only at the heart of the way we organise life, but the way we experience it.

    Of course, you could argue that it doesn’t really matter whether we perceive time accurately according to the laws of physics. On a daily basis, we can carry on walking without needing to remember that, however flat the world feels while you’re on the ground, it is spherical. We still talk of the Sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening, even though we know that it is the Earth and not that the Sun that is moving. Our perceptions don’t keep up with the science – and we can only create our everyday experience of the world using the senses we possess.


    If someone asked you to imagine floating to work on a lilo, most of us would have no problem imagining it (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld / Getty Images)

    Likewise, our perception of time is not something we can choose to ignore. However much you learn about four-dimensional space-time, waiting for that delayed train is still going to feel longer than having lunch with your friend.

    But even if we can’t change our perceptions of time, we can change the way we think about it – and perhaps feel better about its passing, and ourselves, as a result.

    Time for change


    Instead of considering the past, present and future to be in a straight line, we can look on our memories as a resource to allow us to think of the future.

    This is crucial. Humans’ ability to time travel mentally, forward and back, is why we’re able to do so many of the things that set us apart – such as plan for the future or create a work of art. And the important role that memory has to play within that isn’t a new idea: Aristotle, for example, described memories not as archives of our lives, but as tools for imagining the future.

    We shouldn’t curse our memories when they let us down
    This means that what may have seemed like a flaw before – our difficulty to recollect the past accurately – is actually an advantage. If memories were fixed like videotapes then imagining a new situation would be tricky. If I asked you to picture yourself arriving at your workplace next Tuesday morning not via your usual route, but instead floating on a lilo on a turquoise canal lined with tropical flowers, past familiar buildings right up to the front door of your office where your old school friends will greet you with a cocktail, in an instant most of you will be able to do it. (An exception is people with an unusual condition called severely deficient autobiographical memory.)

    Your memory is so flexible that in an instant you can summon up your personally-recorded memories of the street where you work, what it’s like to lie on a lilo, the faces of your school friends, images of tropical flowers and cocktails. You not only locate all these memories which might be decades apart, but you then splice them together to invent a scene you have never witnessed or even heard of before.


    We still talk of the Sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening, even though we know it is the Earth moving (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/Getty Images)

    Cognitively, it sounds like hard work. In fact, the flexibility of our memories makes it fairly easy to do.

    So we shouldn’t curse our memories when they let us down. They’re made to be changeable, in order that we can take millions of fragments of memories from different times of our lives and recombine them to give us endless imaginative possibilities for the future.

    In fact, when our memory for the past is damaged, so is our ability to think about the future. The neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire asked people to describe an imaginary future scenario in which they were standing in a museum. Some said it had a domed ceiling. Others a marble floor. But people with amnesia were unable to suggest what it might look like due to our reliance on memory to allow us to think about the future.

    Instead of thinking of our memories as a handy video archive, we can bear in mind that our memory of an event might not be perfect – and accept that others might have very different memories of the same event.

    Slowing down


    There’s one other thing we can do. The single question I have been most often asked after writing a book on time perception is, how can we slow time down?

    But I wonder whether we should be careful what we wish for. In middle age, the weeks and the years can feel as though they flash by. But part of our sense of time passing is dictated by the number of new memories we have made. When you look back on a busy holiday, even though it went quickly at the time, in retrospect it can feel as though you were away for ages. This is because of all those new memories you made by spending a week outside your usual routine. If life feels as though it’s going fast, this could be a sign of a life that is full.

    If you do want to shed that unsettling feeling on a Sunday evening that the weekend has whizzed by, there is something you can do: constantly seek out new experiences
    Meanwhile, time does feel as though it’s going more slowly if you are bored or depressed or feeling lonely or feeling rejected, none of which we would want to seek out. As Pliny the Younger wrote in 105, “The happier the time, the shorter it seems.”

    But if you do want to shed that unsettling feeling on a Sunday evening that the weekend has whizzed by, there is something you can do: constantly seek out new experiences. Take up new activities at weekends and visit new places, rather than heading for the same pub or cinema. All this fun means the time will fly in the moment – but because you will lay down more memories, when you get to Monday morning, the weekend will have felt long.


    As Pliny the Younger wrote in AD 105, “the happier the time, the shorter it seems” (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/ Getty Images)

    Some routine, of course, is unavoidable. But if you can create a life which feels both novel and entertaining in the present, the weeks and years will feel long in retrospect. Even varying your route to work can make a difference. The more memories you can create for yourself in everyday life, the longer your life will feel when you look back.

    The way we experience time in our minds is never going to match up with the latest discoveries in physics. We all know what the passing of time feels like. Although we can’t change the way our brains perceive time, there are better ways we can start to think about it. But even then, the way it warps in certain situations will continue to surprise and unsettle us. In the end, perhaps, St Augustine put it best when he asked: “What then is time? If no one asks me, then I know. If I wish to explain it to someone who asks, I know it not.”





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