A report published by the Social Issues Research Centre, combining data from a YouGov poll with the results of physiological tests on separate study group of Internet users, suggests that there is a link between badly designed websites and negative effects on human health.
Specifically, the reports links five key IT flaws in website design with problems relating to the immune, cardio function and nervous systems. The test was simple enough, requesting users to go find information from a variety of specific website locations while at the same time measuring both the physical and physiological reactions to the task. Brainwaves, heart-rate fluctuations, muscle tension and skin conductivity were all monitored.
The results indicated that websites which are badly designed can directly cause stress and anger amongst those using them. Something the report authors have coined as ‘mouse rage syndrome.’ And what, precisely, causes mouse rage? Well if you take the research as seriously as these guys intend, then it would seem to be slow to load pages, confusing navigation layouts, excessive pop-ups, unnecessary advertising and site downtime. But surely this is all old news for the website design professional, right? After all, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon, rocket scientist or even market researcher to tell you that people don’t appreciate bad design that gets in the way of a smooth user experience.
What’s more, the fact that the report was commissioned by Rackspace Managed Hosting suggests a rather vested interest in stating the obvious.
What is new though, as far as I am aware, is the direct link between this kind of design faux pas and a negative impact upon the health of the user, which throws up all sorts of interesting and disturbing scenarios. Although the research was carried out in the UK, I would imagine that US web designers might want to sit up and take the most notice as it is in this litigious culture where its findings may well be exploited to the greatest financial benefit. Certainly I would be surprised if someone did not at least attempt to sue the pants off some design company because they blew a fuse, got a headache or lost sleep while trying to locate information on a poorly designed and therefore ‘dangerous’ website.
Using a control set of easy to navigate, quick to load and information rich websites which included the likes of Wikipedia, for example, the study group were first exposed to the pleasure of web browsing sites where usability was a priority. Next came the poorly designed sites, which showed a dramatic change in stress levels amongst most participants. The combination of stupid graphic content and slow loading pages drove many to record levels of distinct stress and anxiety. “Some changes in muscle tension were quite dramatic...While this was happening, the participant's faces also tensed visibly, with the teeth clenched together and the muscles around the mouth becoming taught. These are physically uncomfortable situations that reduce concentration and increase feelings of anger” the report states.
So how can you tell if you are suffering from mouse rage? Well apparently the tell tale signs are quickening of your heart rate, increased perspiration, furious clicking of the mouse, simultaneous clicking and cursing, and perhaps rather obviously bashing the mouse on your desk.
John Allwright, Expression Product Manager at Microsoft UK told me that to best understand the mouse rage reaction you should reflect upon what happens with a good user experience and the virtuous circle known as ‘flow state’ which works as follows: users achieve things they want to and feel happy as a result, when users feel happy they think better, when people think better they achieve more, and repeat. “The most obvious sign that you’ve been in flow state is that you lose track of time” Allwright explains “video games and advertisers are always trying to get their viewers into flow state.” The flipside is the mouse rage experience where “time seems to drag, to be wasted, which further reduces their chances of achieving anything at all.”
Which tends to suggest, as I have always thought, that my time is far better off playing games than going shopping. At least now there is some kind of evidence to qualify my reasoning when being pressed by my significant other to get the online grocery order finished.