January 2020
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Why Performance Matters: The Perception Of Time

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.

“Alice: How long is forever? White Rabbit: Sometimes, just one second.” — Lewis Carroll. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

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, like:

  • Why do time and performance matter?
  • Why don’t we like to wait?
  • Why does faster not always mean better in the online world?

In addition to these, we will cover psychological aspects of some practical cases, like performance optimization of an existing project, how to deal with the better performance of a competitor’s website and how to make users barely notice any waiting for your services. Hopefully, after understanding these “Why?” basics, you will be ready to look outside of some structured “box” the next time you are involved in an optimization process and will make your very own conscious path towards an optimal result.

Every how-to, tutorial, guideline has a simple question "Why?" at its roots
Every how-to, tutorial and guideline has a simple “Why?” at its root. (View large version)

Basic Concepts Link

“Well, I never heard it before, but it sounds uncommon nonsense,” says the Mock Turtle in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. So, first things first. Let us settle on basic terminology and principles. In the following paragraphs, I will define the main concepts that you will find throughout the article.

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, app, etc. When we talk about the user’s perception of time, we mean psychological time or brain time. This time is of an interest to psychologists, neuroscientists and odd individuals like me.

Psychological Time in our brain usually differs from Objective Time on the clock
Psychological time in our brain usually differs from objective time on the clock. (View large version)

Performance optimization is a process of improving the delivery speed of services, feedback or any other type of response action in order to meet a user’s expectation.

We will call the form of communication that occurs when users have to wait for a response from a system a human-to-computer style. On the other hand, when a system barely has any delay in response, we will call that a human-to-human style, similar to the regular conversations we have in real life.

A performance budget, as Tim Kadlec defines it, “is just what it sounds like: you set a budget on your page and do not allow the page to exceed that.” For the purpose of this article, we will consider the performance budget to be directly connected to time — for example, loading a page, responding to a user’s input, etc.

Armed with these definitions, let’s go down the rabbit hole.

Part 1: Objective Time Link

Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!

The Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass

As we defined it earlier, objective time is time that can be measured with a clock. In this first article in our series, we will discuss how to use this time more efficiently for our projects.

“Remember That Time Is Money” Link

This phrase, credited to Benjamin Franklin in his Advice to a Young Tradesman, still proves true in our contemporary world. According to arecent study, it takes only 3 seconds for a visitor to abandon a website. For every 1 second of improvement, Walmart experienced an increase in conversions of up to a 2% on its website. When auto-parts retailer AutoAnything cut loading times in half, it experienced a 13% increase in sales. Users value their time, and a human-to-human style of communication is increasingly expected.

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