The need for speed: Evaluating the perception and reality of speed on the mobile web

August 2017

New research shows that while speed definitely matters on the mobile web, user perceptions of speed can be just as important - presenting site owners with a range of additional approaches for improving usability.

For users of smartphones and mobile devices, speed is of the essence. Rapid, responsive experiences are highly prized by users on the move, and with widespread WiFi and 4G data available, the pace of mobile activity is increasing all the time. To get a better understanding of exactly how users feel about the role of speed on the mobile web, we commissioned a survey of 127 people, investigating both perception and reality across a variety of common scenarios.

Speed Matters

One of the most significant insights from the study concerns how users rank speed compared to other factors that affect their overall experience. A full three-quarters of respondents said that the speed with which a page loads is the most important consideration, compared with factors such as screen size and fit, or the attractiveness of a site’s design. This makes intuitive sense, as user goals generally can’t be accomplished on a site until it has finished loading.

A less intuitive insight is revealed when we consider user perceptions of speed. Respondents ranked seven out of ten visits as loading quickly, which mapped reasonably well against the actual recorded time of those page loads. However, we also discovered a disconnect, with 75% of users who experienced comparatively slow page loads still perceiving them as having loaded quickly.

Perception vs. Reality

This suggests that the idea of speed on the mobile web is actually fluid, and can be influenced by a range of factors beyond the literal time a page takes to load. One of the first potential explanations to emerge from the study involves the difference between the time after which a site can effectively be used, and the time it takes all of the page’s elements to finish loading. On several retail websites, above-the-fold elements are given priority, allowing users to begin browsing before the invisible portions of the page have finished rendering. This behaviour is increasingly common, with ‘infinite scroll’ sites becoming the norm for e-commerce. Users seem to reward these sites with higher perceptions of speed, because they present a usable experience quickly, even when their literal load times are comparatively slow.

Age is another important factor, with younger users seemingly more demanding in their expectations of speed. Of the 18-24 year old respondents, only 50% perceived that the sites and pages they viewed loaded quickly, compared with rates of more than 70% for the older groups. Likewise, state of mind also impacts perceptions of speed, with users who felt anxious or rushed only around half as likely to perceive pages as fast-loading compared to those who were feeling calm or unhurried. These states of mind also correlate strongly to location, with feelings of relaxation and calmness dropping significantly when users are on the move compared to being seated at home or at work.

Speed gets things done

Perhaps the most valuable insight from the study is that speed - or more importantly the perception of speed - pays off for site owners. 92% of respondents said that they completed the goal they set out to achieve on those sites they perceived as fast-loading, compared with just 73% when the sites were perceived as relatively slow. Those users were also far more likely to return to sites they perceived as fast, with 95% saying they would come back, compared to just 62% for the slower-loading sites.

Since speed appears to be as much a matter of perception as fact, site owners have a real opportunity to make a positive difference in user outcomes. Retail sites that attract a particularly young demographic can focus their resources on ensuring super-fast performance on mobile, while sites that are likely to be consulted when users are on the move can encourage a calm and relaxed state of mind by anticipating requests for location or time-based information.

Speeding into the future

Finally, the emergence of mobile-optimised formats such as AMP offers the tantalising possibility that a convergence between perception and reality might be within reach. 63% of respondents regarded AMP pages as faster than average, suggesting that super-speed formats are capable of cutting through and creating a positive impression across many different use-cases.

To find out more about tips to design for speed and performance, you can take a look at the latest Brainfood eBook wrote as a collaboration between and Google.

Why great mobile experiences should be a priority for marketers