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Monday, December 11, 2023

Why the invention of the loading screen is particularly genius

Man-machine interaction, psychological time and the loading logo


By MAYA KORNYEYEVA — mkornyeyeva@ucdavis.edu


Have you ever opened a software, clicked download on an update or fallen off a cliff in a video game? Each such action results in a miniature pause on the screen that triggers a series of complex calculations within the inner workings of the computer, which is presented through the loading screen: a page that lets the user know that their device is still working while keeping the users’ attention and providing a form of entertainment. 

While this loading screen is often not given a lot of attention (or is outright ignored), I have always been fascinated with the wide range of colorful circles, dynamic animations and well-integrated graphics. Each and every browser or game has a unique waiting page, which performs an indispensable role in keeping users informed and entertained.

One of the first — if not the earliest — examples of a loading screen was used in the NCSA Mosaic, a discontinued web browser that was crucial in the popularization of the internet in the early 1990s. It featured a rudimentary loading interface that appeared when users clicked download on a file, and was the predecessor to the thousands of creative loading logos that were designed by web developers in the years following. As the World Wide Web (WWW) became more accessible and interconnected, two major types of loading designs were introduced: the throbber and the progress bar. 

The throbber, or loading icon, is a simple animated graphic element that shows activity in the computer or game program. Many famous throbbers include variations on the loading circle, with some form of spinning pattern that lets users know to stay on the page. On the other hand, progress bars are more linear and give a rough estimate of the remaining wait time. 

What I find particularly groundbreaking about the loading screen is its potential to be fairly interactive, with the goal of keeping the player present and happy. No one, including myself, likes to sit on a loading screen forever, and with our shortening attention spans companies are forced to get creative to retain an audience. 

Many video games took the idea of a loading screen and transformed it from an interruption into a seamless experience that gave small tidbits, fun facts or gameplay tips to the user. 

In Nintendo’s newly released “Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom,” players can see an artistic graphic design in theme with the game — alongside short messages with hints on how to prepare well for battle or face unfavorable weather conditions. The same can be said for “Minecraft,” which keeps players entertained with comments on interesting features of the game while presenting a progress bar and a panoramic view of the map in the Bedrock and Legacy loading screen versions. 

The decision between showing a progress bar and providing the user with a sense of time, or otherwise leaving a repeated activity indicator if no time estimate can be given, raises the question of how best to improve User Experience/User Interface (UX/UI) design in any given program. How do you keep the player from closing the page or giving up, thereby diverting their attention elsewhere? Is it kinder to leave them with a concept of time and provide some psychological comfort? 

These questions were explored in several studies, one of which focused solely on the importance of percent-done progress indicators in human-computer interaction. The findings supported the idea that such percent-done graphical techniques are imperative to keep in mind when engineering man-machine interfaces, and are a necessary and useful tool for most computer programs. The researchers were also able to determine that progress bars can make a program more attractive and effective, while throbbers have less of an effect. 

With all that in mind, loading icons are not only fun to watch and interact with — such as the famous Google dinosaur game — but they are constantly evolving with our improvements in technology. While they may seem deceptively simple at first glance, they truly play an essential role in almost any computer program.


Written by: Maya Kornyeyeva — mkornyeyeva@ucdavis.edu


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