Why Some Apps Are Intentionally Slow

February 27, 2020

In tech, speed is usually a major priority. But did you know it’s actually possible to create a program that is too fast? So some websites and apps are slowing down. From TurboTax to Facebook’s Privacy checkup, this phenomenon occurs more than you might think.


Andrew Davis: [MUSIC]

Andrew Davis: If you ever use TurboTax before,

Andrew Davis: you probably remember a part of

Andrew Davis: the process that look something like this.

Andrew Davis: Where the program would have you wait for a few seconds,

Andrew Davis: while claimed to double check

Andrew Davis: your tax returns before you filed.

Andrew Davis: What you probably don't know though,

Andrew Davis: is back in 2017 The Atlantic

Andrew Davis: took a closer look at TurboTax source code,

Andrew Davis: and what they found was actually pretty interesting.

Andrew Davis: That animation was fixed.

Andrew Davis: It did not appear to be communicating with

Andrew Davis: TurboTax as servers once it began playing,

Andrew Davis: and it always took the same amount of time to

Andrew Davis: complete regardless of the user.

Andrew Davis: Basically, it appeared that

Andrew Davis: TurboTax's developers had inserted

Andrew Davis: this delay for the user experience.

Andrew Davis: It's called an artificial wait

Andrew Davis: and it's not just TurboTax.

Andrew Davis: Remember when Facebook launched

Andrew Davis: its privacy checkup a few years back,

Andrew Davis: that friendly little cartoon robot

Andrew Davis: with a stethoscope would have you wait for

Andrew Davis: a few seconds while it scanned through your profile and

Andrew Davis: offered you personalized feedback

Andrew Davis: on your privacy settings.

Andrew Davis: Yeah, that was a fake way too.

Andrew Davis: Fast Company revealed that

Andrew Davis: Facebook's massive server infrastructure

Andrew Davis: can perform your privacy checkup almost instantly.

Andrew Davis: So what could prompt tech companies to do this?

Andrew Davis: Well, it turns out that you're probably

Andrew Davis: thinking about waiting or wrong.

Andrew Davis: [MUSIC]

Andrew Davis: Most of us assume waiting is bad,

Andrew Davis: but the reality is much more complicated.

Andrew Davis: In many cases, people expect to wait

Andrew Davis: and if that expectation is not met,

Andrew Davis: speed can actually undermine

Andrew Davis: their trust in the final product.

Braden Kowitz: The goal for almost every company is

Braden Kowitz: deliver experiences that are great for people,

Braden Kowitz: and most of the time that

Braden Kowitz: means something that's really fast.

Braden Kowitz: But your experience also has

Braden Kowitz: to meet people's expectations.

Braden Kowitz: So if I go into a nice restaurant and order

Braden Kowitz: a steak and it comes in 30 seconds,

Braden Kowitz: that breaks my expectation,

Braden Kowitz: and I might start to wonder

Braden Kowitz: what's happening in the kitchen.

Andrew Davis: That same principle can apply in tech.

Braden Kowitz: Computers can run incredibly fast,

Braden Kowitz: and in some cases you actually have to

Braden Kowitz: slow the service down.

Andrew Davis: Steven Hoober has worked on

Andrew Davis: the user design experience for media,

Andrew Davis: technology and telecommunications companies.

Andrew Davis: He says, he stumbled across artificial wait times by

Andrew Davis: accident when working for a major cell phone provider.

Steven Hoober: We were told to build a plan optimizer.

Steven Hoober: The user would tell us a few bits of information and we

Steven Hoober: will then find the best service plan

Steven Hoober: for them based on that stuff.

Steven Hoober: Mathematically at least, it's not that complicated,

Steven Hoober: it ran instantaneously and

Steven Hoober: gave them very accurate results.

Andrew Davis: But when Steven's team started testing

Andrew Davis: this plan optimizer they were so proud of with users,

Andrew Davis: they got a big surprise.

Steven Hoober: Everybody hated it and

Steven Hoober: we couldn't figure out why for a while.

Steven Hoober: We finally realized, if you are gonna say,

Steven Hoober: let me check that for you.

Steven Hoober: Then you press the button and it immediately acts,

Steven Hoober: turns out people don't trust it.

Andrew Davis: Steven's team sat there scratching

Andrew Davis: their heads for a few days until he said.

Steven Hoober: So wait, what if we add a delay? That's all we did.

Steven Hoober: We added a random delay and then we started

Steven Hoober: seeing people actually interested.

Steven Hoober: They became engaged in literally most of

Steven Hoober: the users leaned into the screen like,

Steven Hoober: uh what's it doing?

Steven Hoober: And then we're terribly excited to see the results.

Andrew Davis: That excitement in Steven's testing alludes to

Andrew Davis: another reason developers might

Andrew Davis: use these artificial wait times.

Andrew Davis: A little wait can not only help prevent

Andrew Davis: a user from disliking or distrusting an app,

Andrew Davis: but can also make the user value that app more.

Andrew Davis: Waiting can create suspense,

Andrew Davis: hyping up the anticipation of results.

Andrew Davis: It can also draw focus to all the work

Andrew Davis: the app is doing on the user's behalf.

Andrew Davis: Increasing the perceived value of those results.

Andrew Davis: This phenomenon is called the Labor Illusion.

Andrew Davis: Ryan Buell and Michael Norton from

Andrew Davis: Harvard Business School coined the jam.

Andrew Davis: It all started with a visit to

Andrew Davis: the early version of kayak.com.

Andrew Davis: Buell and Norton noticed that

Andrew Davis: the site had a fun little animation that showed

Andrew Davis: users in real-time all the airlines

Andrew Davis: the algorithm was searching.

Andrew Davis: They wondered how this impacted the user experience.

Andrew Davis: So they ran some experiments with

Andrew Davis: the homemade generic version of

Andrew Davis: the Kayak site that tested different search scenarios.

Andrew Davis: What they found is users can actually prefer waiting

Andrew Davis: for results when that

Andrew Davis: waiting is accompanied by the animation,

Andrew Davis: telling them what the algorithm is doing,

Andrew Davis: even over getting the results instantly.

Andrew Davis: But they also soon realized that this information didn't

Andrew Davis: even have to be real to make that enhanced value stick.

Andrew Davis: In short, just creating

Andrew Davis: the illusion of the site labeling by listing off

Andrew Davis: airline names during a wait can

Andrew Davis: increase the perceived value of the results.

Andrew Davis: So now we can see why developers might have

Andrew Davis: an incentive to insert fake wait times into apps.

Andrew Davis: But the presence of little illusions like

Andrew Davis: these got some experts thinking,

Andrew Davis: is all this ethical?

Andrew Davis: [MUSIC]

Andrew Davis: Professor Eytan Adar from

Andrew Davis: the University of Michigan and a few of

Andrew Davis: his colleagues from Microsoft pioneered

Andrew Davis: research on this question back in 2013.

Eytan Adar: The way we think about it from

Eytan Adar: the ethics perspective is who benefits?

Eytan Adar: So am I actually

Eytan Adar: doing something in the interests of the user,

Eytan Adar: are they better off, um

Eytan Adar: given the way I've implemented these things.

Andrew Davis: For Eytan, it all really boils down to whether it's

Andrew Davis: a harmless benevolent deception

Andrew Davis: or a harmful malevolent one.

Andrew Davis: So what about our TurboTax example?

Andrew Davis: Was that benefiting the end user?

Andrew Davis: That little artificial wait with

Andrew Davis: its claims of double and triple checking

Andrew Davis: the results could obviously increase

Andrew Davis: the perceived value of the experience,

Andrew Davis: which in turn could help sell more TurboTax.

Andrew Davis: But building confidence in a product

Andrew Davis: here might help users as well.

Eytan Adar: With things like money, right?

Eytan Adar: If it came back within a second and say, "No,

Eytan Adar: I'm sorry I can't find anything," you will feel worried,

Eytan Adar: you will start looking through

Eytan Adar: the documents much more closely, uh,

Eytan Adar: you will potentially go out and like make tweaks on your

Eytan Adar: own which might result in you filing the wrong taxes.

Eytan Adar: So there might be some cost in you

Eytan Adar: feeling like the software is

Eytan Adar: not doing what it's supposed to do.

Andrew Davis: So these waits can be helpful and a little bit worrisome.

Andrew Davis: Just knowing about them though,

Andrew Davis: can change the way that we think about technology.

Andrew Davis: I think a lot of us had this idea in

Andrew Davis: our heads that computers are sort of infallible,

Andrew Davis: that they're sort of in voluntarily truthful.

Andrew Davis: But even this video's quick look at artificial waits can

Andrew Davis: show us that the reality is much more complicated.

Andrew Davis: Instead, developers can bake

Andrew Davis: their own human qualities into these systems.

Andrew Davis: Whether that's an inspired design experience

Andrew Davis: or a fib here or there.

Andrew Davis: Knowing this can nip a lot of

Andrew Davis: misconceptions about technology in the bud.

Andrew Davis: Ensuring that those little benevolent deceptions

Andrew Davis: remain just that benevolent,

Andrew Davis: rather than taking on a life of their own.

Andrew Davis: [MUSIC]