Websites That Suck Increase Stress


Web Stress

We know that slow, balky, and confusing websites aren’t a good thing. Traffic metrics show this, as does conversion data. Google, whom some think of as passively indexing the web, believes quick-loading pages are essential to a good user experience. Google is, in fact, actively trying to speed up websites (and keep their search users happy) by making page load time a ranking factor. (See Barry Schwartz‘s article at Search Engine Land describing Google’s Matt Cutts commentary at Pubcon.)

Now, neuroscience is underscoring the importance of quick-loading pages and easy to use web sites. A study sponsored by Computer Associates and conducted by Foviance, a customer experience consulting firm, showed that poorly performing websites demanded more user concentration and increased stress:

CA partnered with Foviance – a leading customer experience consultancy – to explore ‘web stress’ in relation to application performance, and its impact on consumer behaviour and buying habits.

Brain wave analysis from the experiment revealed that participants had to concentrate up to 50% more when using badly performing websites, while eye tracking, facial muscle and behavioural analysis of the subjects also revealed greater agitation and stress in these periods. [From It’s Official – Web Stress is Bad for Business.]

The study used a combination of EEG, eye-tracking, and other metrics to evaluate how users responded to issues like slow-loading pages. An interesting characteristic of the study is that although the slowness was created by cutting the connection speed to the user’s computer, the users quite naturally blamed the website itself for the sluggish performance.

Search Frustration

The biometric measures showed that in addition to slow-loading pages, poor site search functionality also jacked up user frustration:

For most websites, search is one of the primary navigation features. It enables customers to find products they need quickly, and provides an opportunity for retailers to suggest other products they might like to try based on an understanding of what they are already looking for. When the product range is vast, or where the product itself is complex, good search functionality is vital if customers are to serve themselves and find answers to all their queries. In the experiment, participants were visibly frustrated by inadequacies in search engines, which made it difficult for them to complete the tasks. [From Web Stress – A Wake Up Call for European Business.]

I certainly find this to be true. Google and Bing have set a high standard for interpreting search strings and finding what the user wants even with poorly phrased queries or even misspelled search words. A site that doesn’t index its content well or requires user perfection in entering a search query will indeed frustrate users.

This study is typical of what we see in the neuromarketing field – things we already know from intuition and experience are confirmed when brain studies are performed. Still, this data is good ammunition for individuals meeting corporate resistance to investing in web site improvements. No business wants to increase the stress levels of their customers or potential clients, and a frustrating website experience could even impact the firm’s brand perception. A subconscious memory of a bad web site experience might easily steer a customer to a competitor’s site the next time.

So, keep your customers and get new ones by reducing “web stress” – make your web site fast and easy to use!

  1. Verilliance says

    Excellent find and review. Having been in web marketing for the last 3 1/2 years I can tell you that usability is a hard sell. It gets relegated to low priority for site owners, and it’s difficult to persuade them to understand why usability is equally important to traffic numbers. Web marketers would be wise to reference this article when trying to persuade their clients to consider the importance of usabilty in their strategy.

  2. Roger Dooley says

    I agree, Verilliance. I found it huge news when Google made their page speed announcement last fall – that put an immediate and tangible benefit on fast-loading websites.


  3. Sage Internet says

    Great information, and as Verilliance said: ‘…when trying to persuade their clients to consider the importance of usability in their strategy.’ The problem is, will people actually listen? Look at the tobacco industry, people know that smoking kills. The data is there to back it up, but they still smoke.

    I think the same situation will be encountered with usability factor. We can tell clients until the cows come home that their site is poorly designed and that they are causing harm to themselves and losing client over it. I think however that people will ‘keep smoking,’ sad as it is.

  4. Brendon Clark says

    It’s a familiar story isn’t it… function vs design, the stable faithful dependable model vs the one that looks cool and everyone else is using and so on. Educated clients will of course know but, as with most things, how do you make dependable usability as interesting and emotive a sales point as the trendiest design and flashiest page. The joy of educating clients continues…

  5. Charlie McCarron says

    Good post, Roger. Hope it motivates people to rethink their sites with the lowest common denominators (dial-up, mobile phones) in mind. I still have one friend on dial-up, and I hear horror stories about dozens of popular sites (YouTube, Facebook, etc.) that now fail to load altogether.

    Another mantra I always try to follow when designing sites – keep the user’s options to a minimum. I think the sheer number of links on the average site can be paralyzing, especially to new visitors. A great example is old Google ( vs. the busy, uglier old Yahoo (

    Anyone know of a study on choice that would make a case for less links, less clutter?

  6. Franki Nguyen says

    Usability is a very hard sell indeed, but once the client is converted they’re converted for life. I find using concrete examples and pointing to reputable sources (such as Google’s push for speed and usability) helps greatly with changing the skeptics over.

  7. Eli Mueller says

    Well Done. We are inching closer to a cultural expectation of instant web delivery. No doubt this research should serve as motivation for those of us in the web business. Streamlined site architecture and usability are a must. At times, this concept may conflict with the graphic-heavy-aspirations of designers, but ultimately the aesthetics of a site can only produce up to a certain level of satisfaction.
    Speaking of user satisfaction – I wonder if this research is helping fuel Google’s high-speed internet initiative? Have they begun acting on this data?

  8. TurkReno says

    We’ve done case studies on site load speed and the direct impact it has on search engine placement and results. Get a real, dedicated server if you want results. All in all, great article. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I agree, TurkReno – sometimes throwing hardware at a problem is the most straightforward solution. (Of course, low cost steps like caching and minimizing database queries are good too!)


  9. Boothe Media says

    I agree with Roger that sometimes the low cost steps of optimizing your site are good. If your site is riddled with 3 megapixel images and several costly “SELECT *” queries, then you will get a little more bang for your buck by optimizing your website.

    That being said, TurkReno is correct. If you can afford a dedicated server, it can help.

  10. Franki Nguyen says

    Backend optimisation aside, using a CDN (content distribution network) could eleviate a lot of latency in content serving, combined with gzip and good html structure, most sites’ load and rendering speed could be halved quite easily (even with out using a CDN).

  11. YourNetBiz Online | Ana says

    I wondered why I felt so stressed…

    Well, all jokes aside, it makes a whole lot of sense. So my objective with my website is to keep it simple (but not plain).

  12. Arturas Kvederis says

    Really interesting post on the research. We will also a lot of discussions and changes on “light and speed” vs “interactive and media rich” and I agree with Verilliance on the usability.

  13. Sean says

    Ah, Stress! If there ever was a technically easy and cheap thing to measure it’s this. A fantastic follow up to the featured study and a generally useful measure for this purpose in general would be using Enzyme-linked Immunosorbent Steroid Assays (ELISAs) to measure the primary stress hormone Cortisol. While the expanded name sounds scary, the techniques are relatively simple for an neuroendocrinologist (or trained tech), kits for the appropriate hormone are in the tens of dollars each (and work for 45-70+ samples in a go) and sampling is as easy as spitting in a tube. The measure is well established as a stress correlate in both human and animal literature, and cortisol levels have a very real impact on everything from blood sugar levels to mood and cognition.

    An unexplored avenue for neuromarketing research?

  14. Pepita says

    Interesting post. Especially since I was just irritated by the fact that in Google Reader it is not your complete blog post that is shown (for a purpose I assume) but only the first few lines. It results in having to open each post seperately thus clicking back and forth…. But all for a reason I assume:-)

  15. Jesper Nielsen says

    I was just reading the press release referred to in the article and stumbled over this conclusion: “the two most stressful points of the online sales cycle were search and checkout.” This is also an important insight not mentioned in your otherwise fine article, Roger.

  16. Steve says

    I loved the comment about how users blamed the web site for their own slow connection – that’s typical I think and I can see millions of IT professionals all nodding their heads.

    I’m not too sure how googles page speed algorithm works though, i’m not sure it’s that big a factor in the SERP’s

  17. Roger Dooley says

    Well, I suppose it depends on the user’s ongoing experience, Steve. If some websites seem fast and others seem slow, then they’ll blame the slowness on the site. If they can’t get anything to load quickly, maybe they’ll blame the ISP. Of course, since some sites are well optimized for slow connections, they will make heavier pages seem sluggish.

    I’ve encountered many web designers who never bother to try to load their designs from a slow connection. They are working on an internal network or a high-bandwidth connection, and never realize that the whole world doesn’t connect the same way.


  18. WCR SEO Perth says

    I agree with the frustration of users, especially if you’re relying on that particular website to provide the information or service that you need. I’ve noticed that government websites in particular are not optimised in structure for mobile phone and I’ve been left on several occasions not beeing able to log in to pay bills or even look up some information. From an SEO point of view, I can only agree with Google’s latest move that leave snail websites loose out in the fight for rankings. You snooze, you loose.

    Great Post, thanks Kat

  19. Mike Lowry says

    one of the most important factors in Google ranking is website speed, If your website speed is slow then Google will not ranked your website on Top position, So its mandatory to speed up website for better Google ranking.

  20. […] example, there was a recent study on how “websites that suck” increase stress. Brain wave analysis results concluded that 50% more concentration was required for participants on […]

  21. Ideal Adverting says

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful article. Quoting Amelia Earhart – “The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity”, the idea of breaking out from the box and moving towards a better way of creating websites that is fats to load and easy to read (minimalist design for example) is very important in today’s time.

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