The psychology of progress bars

Nobody likes filling in long forms, but chances are that at some point we have all had to grit our teeth and face the dreaded multistep form.

Whether it is filling in a lengthy tax return or simply ordering some online groceries, modern life demands that we enter our personal details in many different places. Consequently, it is highly likely that you’ve also come across a progress bar at some point.

Here at Spindogs, our clients regularly ask us to build complex forms and it is our job to ensure that these are user-friendly. Every time I find myself working with a progress bar I try to think what the implications my design decisions have on the user experience. During the years, I have seen many different variations of the progress bar, but at times it seems they have been created it without thinking about the person who will complete the form.  

So, I thought I’d delve into the psychology behind the progress bar to highlight that our design decisions should always be made with the user in mind.  

The need to complete

Research has consistently found that certain neurotransmitters are released when we complete a task. Over time our bodies have subconsciously learnt that completing tasks makes us feel good.

If you’re anything like me, you will click to read a new message on your smartphone just so that the annoying notification icon disappears – even if you have already read a preview of the message on your lock screen! The reason why? We have learnt that completing tasks (no matter how trivial) produces a positive effect and, in contrast, not completing tasks causes a negative effect.

Therefore, the progress bar plays on an individual’s ‘need to complete’ in order to make ourselves feel better. It works to visually define the end goal and effectively ‘dangles the carrot’ for the user, enticing them to take up the challenge.

The feeling of progress

Positive feedback is one of the oldest known human motivators and a progress bar acts to constantly encourage the user, letting them know that they are making progress with their task. For this reason we can manipulate a user’s experience by making them perceive that they are further through the process than they really are.

For example, if we treat the referring screen as our step 1 then we can essentially push the user straight into step 2 when they hit the form. This makes the user feel like they have already made good progress with minimal effort required.

Conversely, if a user begins to get cold feet about completing a form partway through the process, the progress bar acts a timely reminder just how much time they have already invested – time that would be wasted should they not complete the task.

The cost of completion

Throughout our daily lives, we all make cost-benefit evaluations in order to inform our decision making. When engaging with a multistep form, a user will be weighing up whether or not it is worth their time completing the task. The progress bar needs to constantly reaffirm that there is not much cost and that they have nearly reached their goal.

In the majority of cases, this simply comes down to how many steps are there in the process. Of course, the maximum number of steps that is acceptable to a user will differ depending on the scenario. For example, individuals would expect many steps when filling in complex data like a tax return, however a shopping basket with more than 3 steps may start to cause uneasiness for a user.

The value of trustworthiness

Whilst we can use techniques to manipulate an individual’s experience, we mustn’t forget that our users are not stupid and we should not try to pull the wool over their eyes. As a result, it is important to avoid the temptation of pretending that there are less steps than actually required. Nothing creates mass drop-off like a form whereby a user thinks they’ve finished, only to be presented with another set of fields to complete.

Likewise, don’t try to cram two steps into one to make it seem like the form is shorter than it is – warning signs will go off in a user’s head as soon as they realise what’s going on.

Ultimately, if a customer’s experience with your system leads them to feeling that they can’t trust you then they probably aren’t going to choose to do any further business with you. This could result in them abandoning a shopping basket or other implications than can be massively damaging to a business.

The length of engagement

Let’s say we have a form with that certain steps will invariably take longer than others – do we design it so that the more intensive sections are at the start or the end of the process? Research has found conflicting evidence about whether a fast start/slow finish or vice versa, yields better results. In one instance, a fast start means that they user is channelled more rapidly into the heart of the process meaning that the perceived cost of incompletion may be higher.

However, if a fast start is suddenly met by significantly more gruelling steps later on in the process, then a user may start questioning the trustworthiness of the system and consequently become apathetic towards the task.

It’s not the be-all and end-all

Hopefully it has become clear that progress bars have a powerful involvement in the user experience of a multipage form. However, we must remember that other factors also contribute to the effectiveness of a web form. For example, the design and discourse of the actual form itself clearly has a massive impact on the user experience.

Finally, the psychological argument for progress bars is self-limited by the concept that all individuals are different. Therefore, just like tidying up the notifications bar on their smartphone isn’t everyone’s idea of a fun evening in, not everyone is going to be motivated to complete your form just because it’s got a pretty progress bar on it.

For more information on web design, contact our team and we'll be happy to chat some more!

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