Building Empathy to Reduce Load Times

I don’t think anyone would debate with me that we live in an inpatient, instant gratification society. Technology has come such a long way that we get frustrated whenever something requires waiting. One of my favorite comedians, Louis CK, hilariously explains it: 

I will admit, a few extra seconds to wait for my fantasy football team to come up on my phone is really not the end of the world. But there is evidence that slow load times to access a site or application can lead to a poor experience. This slowness can cause someone to give up, leading to a lost sale on a retail site. In healthcare, this could mean less time a physician is focused on a patient during a visit or a pharmacist reviews fewer potential medication interventions during a day

Improving application performance and load times usually means tackling technical debt, which tends to be pushed backwards in product priority. So how does one go about showing the importance of fixing these issues? 

Make the product managers, developers, analysts, and testers really feel the pain to raise the level of empathy for the users. I have tried a little activity to help show the pain caused by slow load times. I call it the “Stop Watch Game”:

I presented a few colleagues a user scenario that involved running a search. I started simple: assume you are one of our users, and you need to create a list of patients on a specific medication in your facility. I instructed them to imagine they have pushed the Run/Load button when I say “go”. They wait and tell me when they would expect the result to load by saying “stop”. This was not done with the application up and running - just hypothetical. Using the stop watch on my phone, I timed the “go” and “stop” commands. My colleagues typically would let the simple queries only go between one and two seconds. I informed them of the reality by starting the stop watch, saying “go”, and then letting the clock run until the real average load time on our application came across. 

I could start to see the awareness by their impatience during that second round of this game. This exercise was even more powerful when I presented a search scenario involving a complex report where load times are naturally going to be longer. Once again, they expected quicker load times then the current reality. The Nielsen/Norman article states that at 10 seconds the user will get distracted and want to move onto other things. So naturally, I said “go” and made everyone sit there for 10 seconds. Talk about a fidgety group. I finally asked the group if they thought that maximum allowable load time was really good enough. 

I’ll admit a couple things: this really isn’t a very fun “game”, and there are other ways to build empathy for users in UX. Ideally, I would have everyone sit in on my usability studies and listen directly to the feedback from our users. Outside of how uncomfortable it would be to have 10 people watch you do your job, the reality is not everyone outside of UX has the time for observing that many studies. Sharing the results and videos from a study can also help, but I have found that is not as engaging as seeing it real time. 

I did the “Stop Watch Game” in a requirements meeting when acceptable load times for a feature became the topic of discussion. At the end of the meeting I had buy in from the team that they would include appropriate, yet realistic load times in the acceptance criteria and they would test to the metrics. I was able to sell the importance of taking on some technical debt in 10 minutes, without having to show videos of inpatient users. 

I like to call activities like this “empathy builders”. Building empathy with colleagues is such an important part of the User Experience process. I have found sharing the pain users have with not so usable software seems to resonate with colleagues more than metrics and usability requirements. 

If playing with a stop watch for 10 minutes is a way to build that empathy to improve the usability  of a product…then I’ll take it.