Channel Surfing Ain’t What it Used to Be

As I was flipping through the stations on the TV the other day, I became particularly aware of the slight delay between the time I pressed the button on the remote and the actual change of the channel. This is one of those minor annoyances that shouldn’t bother anyone but it just seems weird that all the amazing technological advances in television (high-definition picture, thousands of channels to choose from) should come at the cost of the “crispness” in performance that I remember from the old analog broadcasts.

The lack of responsiveness really becomes noticeable during casual browsing. The two- or three-second pause between channel clicks appears to be much longer than the amount of time the average human needs to evaluate the onscreen content. This sets you up for a lot of waiting and really has a negative impact on the user’s experience. If you have cable, you can use the guide feature, of course, but it just doesn’t provide the same satisfaction as a good, old-fashioned, rapid-fire channel surf.

In a recent article, Jacob Nielsen revisited the topic of website response times and noted that delays of even a few seconds can contribute to an unpleasant user experience. He highlights three basic response speeds and how they relate to the human attention span:

  • 0.1 seconds provides a user with the feeling of an instantaneous response — a level of responsiveness that is essential to supporting the feeling of direct manipulation.
  • 1 second keeps the user’s flow of thought seamless and still allows them to feel in control. This degree of responsiveness is needed for good navigation.
  • 10 seconds keeps the user’s attention but they are starting to feel that they are at the mercy of the computer and wish it was faster. After 10 seconds, their mind starts to wander.

These limits would apply equally well to an established technology like television.

It is interesting that it can take longer for a channel to “load” than it takes me to decide whether or not to “kill” it. I agree that this is more annoying than one would expect.

(Do you know how current those numbers are from Nielsen? I think after 10 seconds most people would smash their computer.)

Maybe this is another factor in the migration away from the TV and onto the PC.

Interesting post.

The human factors research that Nielsen cites is fairly old (1968, 1991) but I would imagine that it is still valid. It’s a reasonable question, though, and I suspect that new research would be able to go into more detail. I’d be particularly interested in seeing if there are any generational differences.


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