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Three user interfaces (UIs) go to a pub. The first one orders a drink, then several more. A couple of hours later, it asks for the bill and leaves the pub drunk. The second UI orders a drink, pays for it up front, orders another drink, pays for it and so on, and in a couple of hours leaves the pub drunk.
The third UI exits the pub already drunk immediately after going in — it knows how the pubs work and is efficient enough not to lose time. Have you heard of this third one? It is called an "optimistic UI."
When technical performance optimizations reach certain limits, psychology and perception management might help us to push the limits further. Waiting can consist of active and passive phases; for the user to perceive a wait as a shorter one, we increase the active phase and reduce the passive phase of the wait. But what do we do when the event is a purely passive wait, with no active phase at all? Can we push the limits even further?
Waits without an active phase happen quite often in the offline world: waiting in a checkout line to the till, waiting for a bus, queuing in an amusement park, and so on. It is widely accepted that the longer the user has to wait, the more negative the reaction to the wait. User reaction to a wait online is no different from that in the offline world. Studies based on the analysis of more than a thousand cases identify 14 distinct types of waiting situations on the web. Being dependent on our users' loyalty, we cannot leave them facing a passive wait.
Time can be analyzed from two different points: objective and psychological. When we talk about time that can be measured with a stopwatch, we’re talking about objective time, or clock time. Objective time, though, is usually different from how users perceive time while waiting for or interacting with a website or app.
When we talk about the user’s perception of time, we mean psychological time, or brain time. This time is of interest to psychologists, neuroscientists and odd individuals like me. Objective time is dealt with by technical means, and those means have limits — whether financial, technical or otherwise — that become insurmountable at some point.
Those of us who consider ourselves developers, including me, are very task-oriented. We like to be guided towards optimal results, and we find ourselves uncomfortable when there is no clear path to follow. That is why we all want to know how to do things; we like step-by-step tutorials and how-tos. However, such guidelines are based on certain theories, deep knowledge and experience.
For this reason, I will not provide you, the reader, with a structured answer to the question of how to make a website faster. Instead, I aim to provide you with the reasons and theories for why things function in certain way. I will use examples that are observable in the offline world and, using principles of psychology, research and analysis in psychophysics and neuroscience, I will try to answer some “Why?” questions.