28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part VIII

Users should never wonder if the system is broken, unless it actually is.

As the typical user’s connection speed increases, so too does tolerance for large downloads and streaming content on sites such as YouTube and applications like DropBox. Whereas even five years ago, the term optimization would be largely comprised of checking for bandwidth usage and browser compatibility, these days the practice seems to ignore the former, while the latter has branched out to include mobile platforms and newer server technologies. File size has taken a back seat in terms of priority, which is wonderful. Who doesn’t want their streaming video in the highest possible quality?

Because of this, Flash websites, in all their bandwidth-hogging glory, are running rampant and nearly unchecked in every corner of the internet, resulting in longer loading times for everyone, but especially those who don’t have access to broadband, such as mobile browsers, users who live beyond the reaches of cable access and families who don’t want to  (or can’t) spring for the faster service.

The preloader has been a great addition to the arsenal of developers working with technologies such as Flash, AJAX and Javascript. A preloader is a progress bar that informs the user of how much content has been loaded versus how much is still expected. Graphical preloaders show a visual diagram of how much progress has been made, often in artistic and entertaining ways: the Nintendo Wii’s downloadable content shows an animation of the original Super Mario collecting coins, and the coins themselves represent how much content is left to download. Han Hoogerbrugge’s site displays a silhouette of the first frame of each project, which fills with color from the bottom up as it loads.

There are many sites with preloaders that don’t inform as to how much progress, if any, is being made: YouTube’s cluster of dots, shifting shades of gray in a circular motion, make it seem like the selected video’s on its way, but anyone who’s a regular to the site knows that in the event playback doesn’t begin with a handful of seconds–something that occurs quite often–it likely won’t begin unless the user refreshes the page. This sort of preloader is merely an animation that gives the illusion of progress–which is fine, if no problems get in the way of the implied progress. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case, so problems need to be anticipated and accounted for to decrease frustration. In fairness, Vimeo’s preloader, while more aesthetically appealing, works (or doesn’t) in the exact same way.

Operating systems have various ways of telling the user something’s going on behind the scenes, such as the hourglass cursor and Mac’s spinning rainbow icon. But like the preloaders used by YouTube and Vimeo, these don’t actually say whether the machine is making any progress–many times a computer will essentially freeze except for the animated cursor, and the user is led to believe something’s giong on in the box, while in reality, the computer may be responsive to nothing less than the Reset switch.

Users generally don’t need to want to know everything that’s happening inside their computers, the same way drivers don’t need to know about every little interaction between the parts inside their cars. But if we’re going to trust the companies that make our operating systems, applications and websites, they need to provide sufficient information concerning the status of the systems we use.

A mindless loading animation doesn’t do its job if nothing is loading, and leads to angry users when it’s learned they’ve been misled. A much more responsible loading animation will communicate with the system and wait for confirmation that progress is being made before relaying that information to the user. And if it can do so with a little class, artistic quality or even interaction, it will make the waiting process that much easier to sit through.

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