Waiting for Web Content

Do you like to wait? I don’t mean the kind of waiting where you go off and do something else, knowing that sooner or later some promised event will come to pass. I mean the kind of waiting where that is what you’re doing. Sitting there, thinking about the passage of time. Waiting.

Probably not. We do, of course. We stand in line, we wait in waiting rooms, we stand in bus stops. Waiting. In 1985 David Maister wrote a seminal paper on how waiting affects the satisfaction of visitors and clients. His paper is well-regarded to the point that many of the online articles about waiting for web pages to load are exactly modelled on it. The better ones provide attribution.

Maister paraphrases William James on waiting: “Boredom results from being attentive to the passage of time itself.” When we stop doing other things and start waiting we are unhappy. How unhappy depends on several factors. Is there a good explanation for the wait? Do we know how long it will last? Are we waiting alone? Is the wait ‘fair?’ Will the result be worth the wait? Is there anything we can do, while waiting, to distract ourselves?

William James wrote in 1890, and Maister in 1985, but both writers have a lot of insight that applies to people’s behavior online. Maister was concerned with people lining up for Disneyland rides, waiting in restaurants, using the express line in grocery stores, and waiting for appointments with doctor offices. He noted that we feel better if someone tells us how long we will be waiting, and if there is a good reason for it. We also like to know that there is fairness to the process, and value in the result.

Everything is exaggerated and sped up online. According to this New York Times article, the time we’re willing to wait for a web page to load has dropped from 10 seconds to 2 seconds, and that a difference of 250 milliseconds can make a difference.

The tolerance for mobile apps seems to be longer, at present, but that will likely change.

One thing about the Web. There’s always something else just a click away. No matter how relevant, how valuable you believe your content to be, there is a bunch of slightly less relevant, slightly less valuable content that beckons. And, if your visitor is just waiting, she might decide to check that out instead.