Highlight Your Work


Have you ever found yourself staring at a website as a progress bar slowly makes its way across your screen and wondered ‘what’s taking so long?’. You’re not alone, and there are plenty of consumers out there whose approval of a service or application drops upon waiting for something to load.

When it comes to certain services and applications, longer waiting times are inevitable, but that doesn’t mean you can’t tweak your approach to bring higher levels of satisfaction. By showing consumers what’s taking so long, it’s possible to not only lower their levels of frustration but actively increase preference for your service – so much so that consumers can value your services more than if results were delivered immediately.

Operational transparency makes the work that a website does more salient and leads customers to value a service more highly. In their research paper, entitled The Labor Illusion: How Operational Transparency Increases Perceived Value, Buell and Norton suggest that even the mere appearance of effort – which they dub “the labor illusion” – is enough to have a positive effect on customer perception. This illusion of labor can be crafted by replacing a typical progress bar with a running tally of the actions that your website or application is taking when performing tasks.

This form of clarity has successfully transitioned into the realm of fast food online. Restaurants like Domino’s Pizza have created live screens on their website and mobile app that give their customers running updates on their orders, promoting greater user satisfaction. By replacing progress bars with running tallies of the tasks that are being performed, whether it’s the different airlines being searched when a consumer is looking for flights or the different profiles being searched when a consumer is looking for dates, customers are more inclined to choose to wait longer for the very same results.

Over five experiments, Buell and Norton demonstrated the role that the labor illusion plays in bringing an a stronger perception of value through websites.

The authors concluded that although many websites may objectively deliver faster performance, customers may see the service as less valuable because they can’t see labor involved. Adding such signals back through the means of operational transparency, like Domino’s Pizza, has the potential to restore this perception of value.

Counter-intuitively, it was found that this illusion was positively associated with perceptions of value in websites even if the service took longer overall. It was also shown that individuals prefer waiting over instantaneous delivery – just so long as the delayed experience features insight into the work allegedly being performed on their behalf. (e.g. “Searching 5,000,000 different products to find the right one for you!”)


Highlighting your website’s work where the process of waiting is both inevitable and familiar to consumers can be an ideal place for operational transparency. Start by asking yourself if your customers know what’s happening behind the scenes, and are there ways you can convey those steps more transparently throughout the sales process. If you can share more, good things will happen.


Buell, Ryan & Norton, Michael. (2011). The Labor Illusion: How Operational Transparency Increases Perceived Value. Management Science. 57. 1564-1579. 10.2307/41261916.