Mobile delays are as stressful as watching a horror movie!


August 22, 2019

The stress of mobile delays

Imagine that you go to a website on your phone to read some gossip news, or open the YouTube app to watch your daily dose of funny cat videos. But as you click on the content, the page takes ages to load! You know your response -- you get annoyed and after a brief time you leave the page to do something else. But how long does it take before you give up? And just how strong is that negative emotional response?

In a series of studies, Neurons has worked with Ericsson, often with other telecom companies such as Vodafone, to understand the emotional and cognitive responses to streaming delays. Here, we present the result of no less than three main studies where we have explored the effects of streaming delays on customer responses,

Study 1: delays equal horror in the brain!

In this first study, we tested the effects of delays on a sample in Scandinavia. Here, we set up fictional websites to have full control over the delay in which the website and videos would load. We randomly assigned people into a no/low delay, medium delay and high delay group with a sample of N=30 in each. During the session, each participant was wearing eye-tracking glasses, EEG brain monitoring, and heart rate monitoring. The results were staggering! After as little as 2-3 seconds, we saw a dramatic shift in the cognitive and emotional responses that people had to mobile delays.

Not only did we see a 44% increase in heart rate during delays, but we also saw a skyrocketing of cognitive load and plummeting of motivation. This is a strong indication of "information overload" which itself leads to a drop in emotional responses. One surprising finding was that despite that these responses happened already after 2-3 seconds, people still claimed that they would tolerate 5 seconds of delay. So emotional responses "freak out" earlier than the conscious mind.

Courtesy of Ericsson Consumer Labs Report

Moreover, we also tested how people responded to a number of different states and content. This allowed us to compare the stress response to delay to other types of responses that we know well. This exercise we call finding the right Neural Metaphors.

Delays make you love a brand less, and its competitors more!

In doing these comparisons, we found that the stress response to delays were most related to how we respond to horror movies! To make matters worse, we also found a double-whammy effect on brands. Brands associated with the delay would lead to a net decrease in brand emotions, and at the same time, these brands' closest competitors had a net increase in emotional response! In other words, if you believed that you were testing telecom operator X, then a delay made you love that provider less, and its competitors more! This study demonstrated how stressful delays can lead to a poor customer experience that eventually halos over to the brand.

Study 2: the cultural response to delays

As a follow-up to the first study, we were interested to understand whether there would be any cultural differences. Here, we tested people in two very different cultures: Germany and Indonesia. They are different in many respects, including the connectivity speed they are used to. In addition, it is well-known that customers in Asia are often less prone to assert that they are dissatisfied, leaving traditional survey methods less sensitive and useful in these cases.

Germans respond after 1 second, Indonesian after 9 seconds!

While we could replicate the results from the first study, we also discovered that there was a large cultural bias to the results. In the previous study, we had found that 2-3 second was the time it took for people to respond emotionally. But here, we saw a strong cultural side: Germans responded already after 1 second, Indonesians after 9 seconds!

The response was the same -- emotional negativity, increased heart rate, and cognitive overload -- but there was a substantial cultural side to these effects. Also, in this study, we tested whether it would only be the telco service provider brand that would take a negative hit -- we found that even content providers (e.g., YouTube) suffered the same abysmal decline in brand emotions. If customers have a bad experience with your brand, you get the emotional blame! But understanding the subconscious cultural tolerance to delays is crucial for brands.

Study 3: 5G delays in virtual reality

Most recently, we studied how delays on a 5G network could lead to experiences in one of the domains that are touted as the to-be arenas for 5G connectivity: gaming in VR.

We asked 64 participants to play a round of a 1st person shooter game in Virtual Reality, and compared this to the same gaming type on a computer screen. As with the previous studies, we manipulated the gaming experience, making the connection slower, which itself led to delays and buffering in the game.

We tested pro gamers, as well as old and young casual gamers. Since this was a 1st person game, it already had instances of stress. But what we found was a 43% increase in stress events when we compared PC to VR gaming. VR made the game more stressful - for high delays, this stress increase exceeded 100%. People got more than twice as stressed when playing a delayed VR game!

We also found that the emotional responses and enjoyment of the game plummeted, going from a positive enjoyment at no delay to a strong disliking at high delays. People also felt that their performance went down significantly in high delays.

As one reporter that tried the experience said:

At one point, as I was trying to reload my rifle, my virtual hand wouldn’t let me pull the level or drop in another clip of ammo. Instead, it would grasp at the digital air for a second before finally lining up. Another time, I was racing toward an enemy soldier—gun ready—when suddenly he disappeared. Yet another time, I was dead before I even saw my killer.

We also did other tests in this study, and they became hallmark findings of the game. First, we found that with increasing delays, players had to stop gaming simply because they started to feel too nauseous. 5G delays in VR will make people stop using it! Second, we tested whether gamers' memory would be affected by delays. Here, we found that their memory for words declined sharply with increasing delays -- this effect was stronger for VR than PC gaming delays.

Further reading

If you want to read more, you can find it here:

Study reports

Media coverage