Perception of speed has a defining role in adoption of new technology, customer satisfaction and utility. When presented with multiple digital touchpoints, users gravitate towards and prioritise those which offer the lowest latency.

Consider, for example, my own user journey during the last couple of years.

  1. It started with switching from a PC to a MacBook. My first reaction was the reduction in ‘lag’.
  2. I began to associate the Apple brand with speed, so changed my Nokia to an iPhone 3GS. The immediacy of ‘in pocket’ access and the speed of the device made it my ‘go to’ touchpoint, prioritised even over the MacBook.
  3. However, upon acquisition of an iPad, my perception of speed changed again: the first generation iPad seemed significantly faster than the 3GS and it became the first thing I reached for to make digital interactions.
  4. Most recently, I upgraded from 3S to 4S, and the reduction in lag has been greater still, supplanting even the iPad. It is now the 4S which serves as my primary jumping off point for the virtual sphere.

At each step, sub-consciously, my benchmark for acceptable speed increased, such that the iPad which seemed so fast now seems sluggish and the 3S ancient. Speed caused me to change my primary digital touchpoint. Crucially, it is a shift which spanned traditional categories and overrode concerns about loss of utility.

The MacBook, of course, remains more capable than the iPhone 4S, but the reality is most users rarely come close to pushing the boundaries of device capability. For me, the MacBook has become niche; immediacy and lower latency have crowned the iPhone my primary digital touchpoint.

In another user example, I saw a laptop PC loaded with years of photos, music and videos, abandoned almost overnight in favour of an iPad 2. The PC has gone from being a regular fixture on the coffee table and sofa, to an artefact stored in a cupboard. Switching it on is an event, characterised by the user specifically making time and perceiving the need to allocate a significant ‘sit down’ period to booting the PC, opening the relevant app and completing the task.

Their iPad 2, in contrast, is always carried to hand, never further away than reaching into a handbag. The user’s 3S – ostensibly more portable than the iPad – is carried less frequently and is generally left outside the user’s reachable radius.

It is within that arms’ length zone of physical proximity where the battle of digital ecosystems is fought, and speed is the definitive weapon.

This kind of perceived speed, of course, is measured not in megahertz or progress bars, but in fractional seconds of lag, in the differential between finger touching screen and eye detecting a flicker of response. It is a question of total experience and one which amplifies human laziness. At its extreme it highlights, for instance, how something as simple as opening a clamshell can seem so great a relative effort in contrast to the immediacy of a touchscreen slate that it consigns a previously loved device to niche and infrequent usage.

The implications are significant. The gravitation of users to low latency interactions sets off chain reactions as individuals make new application, network and accessory choices to support their shift in primary touchpoint. Most users rely on the device they use most frequently to inform their choice of secondary digital touchpoints. An iPhone user is more likely to buy Apple TV for for their home media needs, just as a Windows Phone user may prioritise Xbox in their living room. Win the battle for speed within the user’s reachable radius and you’ll likely also win across a much wider front of digital experience.

Performance results from many small optimisations: underlying hardware, form factor, operating system, network connection, information architecture and the visual feel of individual applications. It is also layered throughout the user experience, so that perceived speed may be a defining factor when choosing between individual applications, just as it is a defining factor when choosing between devices.

Speed, therefore, should be every practitioner’s domain, whether you are a developer tweaking your service to appear fastest or a device manufacturer fine tuning your hardware.

It is also an illusory art, where raw measures are secondary to perception. At the application level, visual tricks – such as providing an opening snapshot of priority content before the rest of the service is ready for interaction – reduce latency. Perceived control, too, aids tolerance: a network transaction which provides a clear indication of progress seems faster than one where the user is left waiting for confirmation.

In mobile user experience, no improvement in speed is too small to be ignored. Indeed, as the majority of users transfer the balance of their digital interactions to untethered, always on devices, seeming significantly faster will become a game of micro-seconds, illusions and obsessive optimisation for designers.

Speed will be at the heart of the MEX agenda as we prepare for the next event in September 2012. If you’d like to contribute ideas or propose a MEX speaking session on this theme, please get in touch.


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  1. 2
    Nick Healey

    That’s a rather fabulous post, if I may say so. Hear, hear.
    My “fast device” is the Psion Revo, which I still use for its Calendar.
    It’s the first version of Symbian OS, running on just a 32MHz CPU and 16Mb of RAM, yet every redraw, every multi-task feels instant.
    And it has a whole string of UI/UX tricks going on to make it feel faster to use.

  2. 3
    Marek Pawlowski

    Glad you enjoyed it Nick. The Psion devices are a great example of speed. They always seemed to eke a more rapid experience from fewer resources than their competitors. From memory, though, I seem to recall there was some perceived lag with the Revo keyboard..?

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