A 2008 Coding Horror article describes the difference between perceived performance and actual performance, referring to a study of progress bars in computer software. In the study (PDF) it turned out that the people tested ‘perceived progress bars with pauses as taking longer to complete’ and that ‘accelerated progress was strongly favoured’.
It seems that people remember things as taking longer when there were pauses in the feedback, and think that progress was faster when the feedback showed accelerating progress at the end.
This helps explain the value of regular feedback for people tracking orders in a supply chain. In particular, regular feedback on progress requires status updates for different milestones in the supply chain, rather than a long wait between ‘order created’ and ‘order complete’.
It is harder to make an analogy with accelerating (displayed) progress at the end of the process, perhaps because it would be harder to show acceleration without continuous real-time feedback and because order delivery is a non-linear process. On the other hand, the study does suggest that people are ‘most willing to tolerate negative process behaviour (e.g. stalls and inconsistent progress) at the beginning of an operation’. Therefore, perhaps perceived performance might be improved by focusing on more consistent and accurate status updates towards the end of the delivery process.
For example, if I order a book from Amazon for delivery in the Netherlands I expect it to take more than a week (seriously), so once I know that the order process has started successfully I do not value feedback during the next few days. However, after a week I start to wonder when my book will arrive and would like to know when it will be ‘tomorrow or the day after’, and on the day of delivery an accurate estimate would be very useful for making sure there is someone at home.
Unfortunately, Amazon status update frequency is backwards. I usually get an order confirmation and shipment confirmation within 24 hours of placing the order, and then hear nothing until a week later when the postal service leaves me a note to say that there was no-one in the office to accept delivery at 6 a.m. That, however, is another story altogether.
Meanwhile, the experience in the UK is different, and better. Apart from the fact that Amazon UK unsurprisingly delivers to a UK address more quickly, the status update frequency is different. For example, a recent order’s status updates were:
- Sunday - order confirmation
- Wednesday - ‘order dispatched - delivery expected Friday’
- Thursday morning - ‘we’re going to deliver today’
- Thursday afternoon - ‘we delivered your order’.
That’s much more like it! I’m more impressed by the last two status updates than how long the delivery actually took, which wasn’t actually that fast because I didn’t pay extra for next day delivery.