The Power of Progress (Bar)


man in airport

Time is precious. We don’t like to wait.  Waiting at a bus stop, being put on hold on the phone or stuck behind a queue in a newsagents; we get annoyed when we are forced to wait.   We could be somewhere else getting on with our busy lives.

And we get very impatient with technology that doesn’t work straight away.   Slow technology or latency can cost business dearly as recent research shows.

 A 1 second delay in page load times (mobile) equals 11% fewer page views, a 16% decrease  in customer satisfaction and 7% loss in conversions.    Aberdeen group 2013.

And not only do we expect the website or app to work straight away, we expect to be able to do what we need to do quickly and or at the very least to have an idea of how long it will take.     Then it is up to us to decide whether we will hang around or come back another time.

quote about lost time

If we do not know how long it might take, we have to take  a guess.   This is an uncomfortable state for us, we are stuck in limbo, unsure whether to stay and complete task or to leave and potentially lose the time we have invested so far.   How do we alleviate this tension?

On the Telephone-

image of telephone“Sorry we are experiencing a busy period, one of our agents will be with you shortly”

The same message repeated over and over again.
This is what I experienced lately when trying to get through to Edinburgh City Council Tax Support.

I had a much better experience when ringing my insurance company to check a detail about my policy

“We are sorry to keep you waiting, waiting times are currently about 15 minutes and you are currently position  no. 8 in the queue”

In that case I the necessary information I needed to make a decision.

-On the Bus-

I was waiting at the bus stop for 10 minutes and still no sign of the bus.  The only clue I had as whether the bus has been or gone is the fact that there were two other confused people hanging around.  Five minutes after I got fed up and start walking, the bus zoomed passed me.  Typical.

Bus tracking technology has completely changed this experience in the last couple of years.  Especially the real time tracking displays at bus stops.  It give passengers the freedom to choice whether to stay or go or wait for bus 19 as opposed to get on bus 45.  Fantastic.   The only downside is that every bus stop doesn’t have one.


When we go online to do something it is important we have an idea of what that task involves and how long it is going to take us.  Good design and clear navigation and information architecture can go a long way towards letting a user know what to expect.   Progress bars are especially useful when a user is engaged in some goal directed behaviour such as completing a form or working through a check-out flow.  Knowing where we are in the flow and how much we have left to complete gives the user more information and therefore more control of the situation.


progress bar

Showing progress also speaks to a human’s need for closure. We humans are generally goal directed and like to achieve goals or tasks. We also feel the need to complete those goals.   There is a good article from KISSmetrics  discussing Gestalt theory of closure which tells us that as soon as a users start out on a task they are already envisaging completeness of the task in their minds.   If the system is continually giving users indicators towards their progression towards achieving that goal it is a generally a much more satisfying experience.