Progress Indicators are Always a Good Idea

Progress bars. You know them. You love them. They tell you when the computer is going to be done with a task, or when you are going to be done with a task. Sometimes they’re accurate, sometimes not so much. Regardless of accuracy, studies have shown that humans like to know progress:

A friend tries to encourage you by observing “There’s light at the end of the tunnel.” The comment may help you persevere because, with the end in sight, the remainder of the task becomes more pleasant or the prospect of abandoning it more unpleasant. In either case, your friend is trying to influence how you perceive the task to help you complete it. The belief seems to be that long, boring tasks will be experienced as shorter and more interesting, or at least more tolerable, when we can tell we are making progress. This appears to be the rationale of designers who provide feedback to users about their progress.

The light at the end of the tunnel is a powerful force and is one that helps drive most of us to complete our goals. But as the nights get darker and the days get longer, how do we persevere through and not just see the light, but make it out of the tunnel to feel the light too?

For that, we turn to science. Task completion is a feel-good activity, and we become more and more happy as we complete a task. Hugo Liu describes why here:

*Because completion is intrinsically rewarding. * Neuroscience backs this up. It turns out that when you finish a complex task, *your brain releases massive quantities of endorphins. * Through the magic of classical conditioning, you come to associate present acts of completion and progress with the pleasure and satisfaction of your past completion-induced endorphin rushes.

The more tasks you complete the more and more you become addicted to that feeling.

Along with completions, we get the same reward from seeing plain ‘ol progress. Even if the end result is far away or even unattainable, feeling like we’re making progress is all that is needed to keep us happy:

penrosestairsShown above is a depiction of the Penrose Stairs, also known as the endless staircase or the impossible staircase. We can see from this vantage point that the stairs really lead to nowhere. However, for the man on the stairs, he may feel like he is getting somewhere. After all, the personal experience would be that of moving forward and upward — the very definition of progress.

In the context of the work environment, you are happier when you feel like you are moving forward and upward.

So what does this have to do with computers?

Well, we can’t physically see progress in a computer – if we start a file copy, we can’t open up the side of the computer and watch it copy. Developers have to build the indicators into the UI so end users know the computer is performing the task. And that’s the important part. Whenever possible, display progress to the user. Whether it’s a file copy, or the number of experience points they need to gain to level up, or a set of steps that needs to be completed users will thank you for knowing when they’ll be done. It will help them complete whatever goal they are trying to accomplish with your software.