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.


    I guess you're right in the sense that it's not actually going to add up to a meaningful time saved but when using the search for productive purposes it stops the user from getting distracted.

    When the search results appear in-front of you straight away, even if they're not correct you never take your eyes off the search screen... whereas if they took a little longer then you might have switched tabs or opened a different program.

    I agree that the time saved is not significant. However, i think that you may have missed the point of these updates and tweaks to google search.
    The point is to keep them ahead of the competition and in the eyes of the public.
    If they dont do anything, they will just go the route of, if they do bad stuff then they will eventually lose popularity.
    Therefore, this is their best course of action.

    besides, these changes are freaking sweet

    You're looking at it from the wrong side of thing. The updates aren't intended to benefit the user - although that is an acceptable side-effect. They're getting you off the blank standard page faster. Looking at adverts that much faster. Possibly getting you to look at an extra page or two a day (complete of course with Google adverts). Google's very much about the big picture - that 2 seconds per search, per user probably adds up to a lot of extra revenue for them.

    I think it comes down to user perception. A common theme I've encountered in training doctors to use software was always "Why can't I do that faster with one click?" It frustrated me, but they tried to illustrate how the cumulative effect dropped their productivity:

    Step One: waiting time - 2 sec
    Step Two: waiting time - 10 sec
    12 sec waiting is 20% of what might be a 1 minute task. If the task is repeated through the day (say, 125 chest x-rays to report) then you've racked up about 25 min of waiting. (Nevermind comparing it to how they used to same task without computers!)

    So theoretically a loss of 25 min seems like a fine justification. Practically, however, I tend to agree with you Angus. Everyday interruptions like a 5 minute phonecall ruin the theory.

      I agree completely Adam,cumulative effect is the critical component both within a program and across the whole operating system. As a doctor the electronic medical record (eMR) is a perfect example of a horrifically designed user interface. I'm not sure which radiology PACs system you worked with Adam but they tend to be much better than the eMR.
      Inefficiencies should always be corrected, even though 2 seconds is a small amount these cumulative wastages across the day can add up. That being said prioritizing and correcting larger inefficiencies first is obviously the way to go. Though when you have a web page as simple and well-designed as Google's being utilized so many billion times a day (by humans) 2 seconds/search is a vast amount of time saved.
      Returning to the electronic medical record used in NSW Health - I know that I spend on average 30 minutes of my time waiting for the program to respond per day. This is composed of 2-5 second chunks throughout the program throughout the day. You can imagine the cost that adds up to in utilization of doctors/nurses/allied health staff time.
      The difference between a good and great user interface is determined by those subtle differences whose benefit may not be immediately apparent.

      Ending with obligatory cheesy quote :):
      "Aim at perfection in everything, though in most things it is unattainable. However, they who aim at it, and persevere, will come much nearer to it than those whose laziness and despondency make them give it up as unattainable." Lord Chesterfield.

    Instant Search is the biggest pain, on a little netbook it chokes the whole browser and makes entering your search take longer. As a previous poster said it gets you viewing more ads and in my opinion takes more time too.

    Personally, I like the "instant" updates. They feel more responsive than a typical search, and sometimes you find you don't have to type an entire phrase in to get what you wanted, which saves time.

    Who'd have thunk it: a tech blog trying to say "cool, fast tech that improves user experience is unnecessary because I think it isn't some certain arbitrary percentage better than it was before"?

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