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Saving Two Seconds Isn't Worth It For Humans

Google has been making constant tweaks to its search service since rolling out Google Instant, and a common justification for each change is that it can save you even more time when searching. I’m all for making search services faster and better, but when we’ve reached the point where we’re talking about saving a single second in the process, I fear we’ve lost track of how people actually work.

Picture by Mao Lini

That thought flew largely unbidden in my head when I read our Lifehacker post over the weekend on useful ways to use Google Instant on your mobile phone. The tips were interesting, but I spluttered somewhat over this comment:

What are the total time savings on a Google Instant mobile search, as opposed to using your phone’s normal type-then-search tool? Probably a second or two, maybe a bit less, each time — but it adds up over multiple uses.

You know what? I just don’t believe that. A second isn’t a meaningful unit when it comes to productive human activity. That two seconds you just “gained”? You’ll lose it the next time you swat a fly away, or pick up your cup of coffee, or get distracted by a siren in the street. It’s certainly not going to get you out of the office earlier.

On a computer processing millions of transactions, saving even a few milliseconds really does add to more efficiency, because the same basic processes get repeated over and over without ceasing. But as a human, you’re working with a much more complex mechanism, and one where distractions and diversions are often the norm. (And if you really are spending most of your working life typing queries into Google, you need to look at developing some automated solutions instead.)

Concentrating on a single task is the easiest way to get it done, but even then you won’t be working with 100% effort all of the time. So how is saving a second in choosing a search result going to really help you?

Of course, that’s just my take. If you’ve got a different one, there’s always room in the comments.