With the advent of increasingly large web clients, we’ve had many important conversations about best practices regarding page load times. There are several studies that demonstrate increased conversion rates from decreasing the amount of time it takes the browser to reach its first paint.
The TL;DR is that by optimizing the critical rendering path and reducing the time it takes to render something (anything!), users tend to stick around longer and convert. As an industry we’re mostly on the same page about this and I think there’s another metric we should start to explore.
Time to Operate
Optimizing the critical rendering path is important, but I think it’s equally important what we choose to render. Getting a spinner to show up may be simple and efficient, but the spinner itself doesn’t provide much information; it’s blocking the user from seeing ahead.
The loading spinner can be described as blocking because it prevents the user from deciding what is next for them. There’s no indication of how long it will take to stop spinning and no matter what you load after this, it’s going to be a jolting experience when lots of new content bursts to the screen.
The metric I want to explore is the time to operate: the time it takes for users to determine what they will do next according to their own agenda. Callum Hart points out that Facebook does this really well with non-blocking UI previews.
Instead of a spinner for areas that are loading data, Facebook renders a temporary, visual representation of what is to come. These UI previews provide context and cues that inform the user of what is to come. It renders almost immediately and resembles the actual interface.
A user on Little Big Details pointed out that Pinterest does something similar by painting the background of each card with the dominant color of photo that’s about to be displayed.
Nothing New Here
This technique isn’t new. The iOS Human Interface Guidelines recommend an identical technique for application launch screens and loading states, suggesting that a loading template’s number one goal is “intended to enhance the user’s perception of your app as quick to launch and immediately ready for use,” and stressing that it’s not an opportunity for flashy animations, showing off your brand, or shoving a spinner in everyone’s face.
There aren’t any studies on this that I know of, but I’m sure the tech giants behind the idea have their reasons. I’m personally a big fan and hope to see more numbers on the topic soon.