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The benevolent deception of fake progress bars

Kaveh Waddell, writing for The Atlantic, on how some programs like TurboTax use fake progress bars in their UIs:

It’s not because TurboTax delights in messing with its clients. Instead, the site’s artificial wait times are an example of what Eytan Adar, a professor of information and computer science at the University of Michigan, calls “benevolent deception.” In a paper he published in 2013 with a pair of Microsoft researchers, Adar described a wide range of design decisions that trick their users—but end up leaving them better off.

Benevolent deceptions can hide uncertainty (like when Netflix automatically loads default recommendations if it doesn’t have the bandwidth to serve personalized ones), mask system hiccups to smooth out a user’s experience (like when a progress bar grows at a consistent rate, even if the process it’s visualizing is stuttering), or help people get used to a new form of technology (like the artificial static that Skype plays during quiet moments in a conversation to convince users the call hasn’t been dropped).

From my experience with TurboTax, the fake progress bars work. If “checking my taxes” was instantaneous, it’d probably feel way less satisfying, and I’d be more doubtful that the software was functioning correctly. That being said, as Waddell points out at the article’s end, these positive feelings can also have some insidious effects, like making the software seem more complicated and valuable than it truly is.