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The Progress Bar’s Implications for Humanity

March 14, 2011
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Had a great conversation last night with Evan Jones of Stitch Media, who presented at SXSW about “How Progress Bars Can Change the Way We Live.”  He explained that progress bars were initially utilized to show how far into a long computing process your PC was. As CPUs get exponentially more powerful, the need for progress bars decreases, and yet we see them more than ever, albeit in alternative uses.

One example that Evan uses is LinkedIn (23andMe is another one that has frustrated me lately). Currently, I think LinkedIn says my profile is 70% complete or something like that. It’s a somewhat abstract metric: What is “complete,” and what are the benefits to being complete?

Evan points out that by emphasizing my  unfinished business, LinkedIn is creating a subtle state of cognitive dissonance. I’m pretty sure I’m complete, but LinkedIn says I’m not. I can respond to this in a couple of ways:

  • Ignore it, and decide I don’t care about getting to 100% (which probably lowers my perception of LinkedIn’s utility)
  • Work to get to 100%, which is clearly what LinkedIn is hoping I’ll do

Personally, I did the first. I know my LinkedIn profile is incomplete and I don’t care, and I wonder if this has led me to think of LinkedIn the way I do. (I think it offers a pretty bad user experience, and I use Facebook more often for professional networking).

I’m way over-simplifying Evan’s points, but hopefully you get the idea. Progress bars are not going away, they’re just changing roles. Instead of instilling patience that a task will soon be completed, they’re pointing out that we have unfinished business–so they’re taking us from a state of patience to a state of anxiety.

The other point that’s worth bringing up is the dishonesty of the Spinning Beach Ball. The Apple progress icon (and it’s corollaries on other platforms) don’t show progress, only activity. Your PC is saying “I’m doing something, hold tight.”

If we had a relationship of trust with these spinning beach balls, they’d be useful and calming as we wait for a task to be completed. Unfortunately, the beach balls lie. When a Mac freezes up, the ball should stop spinning to indicate that. Instead, it spins forever, destroying our trust.

And as we marketers know, loss of trust is a big obstacle to overcome.

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