Am I there yet? How progress bar dynamics drive users

Gavin Davies wrote a nice piece, Are we nearly there yet? The role of the progress bar on the web, discussing the four requirements of a useful progress bar in tracking software task completion. Per Davies, a good progress bar should be:

  • Accurate – watching a bar fill up gradually only to chug to a halt at around 90% can infuriate all but the most Zen. Worse still on the hair ripping scale are bars that fill up, only to empty and begin anew!
  • Responsive and smooth – the bar should be updated regularly to show that things are still working. This means that, on the web, we should update progress bars via Ajax rather than hefty page reloads. Research shows that a linear, consistent progress increase is better than the bar jerking around like a malfunctioning robot dancer.
  • Precise – the bar should show an estimate of time remaining, and perhaps other data such as percent or file size remaining so the user knows if he or she should start any long books in the interim.
  • Appropriate – before using a progress bar, consider carefully whether it is appropriate, both in terms of User Experience and technical feasibility.

I’d expand on this, and add that the progress bar is useful beyond the completion of a software task, but for personal accomplishments; “Am I there yet?” moments, if you will. For example, the LinkedIn progress bar prompts profile completeness.

The progress bar is actually a game element, which triggers the twin desires to both complete and compete. It’s invaluable in educational, social media, and other contexts. Like Seth Priebatsch of SCVNGR said, “Humans love progress bars. If you see a progress bar, you want to complete it.”

The same requirements apply that Davies suggests, but the nature of the progression dynamic changes. So, instead of time remaining, the user may have tasks remaining, or user-generated content, or a certain amount of time using the application or exploring the site. These progress bar milestones can themselves incorporate game elements, becoming a quest for users for which progress bar completion is only one of many rewards.

Apart from games themselves, game mechanics (or gamification) have been primarily used in the educational field, although it’s been spreading through interaction design since the nineties. Those interested in exploring the field, a good start is Clark Aldrich, a true guru at designing “serious games” and simulations.

Cross-posted from UXtraordinary, my professional blog. Related UXtraordinary post: Fun is Fundamental.