Pacing ourselves for a more humane web

Written by Marketa Benisek - December 19, 2023

In the vast digital world where information flows ceaselessly and user experiences unfold in the blink of an eye, we’ve become accustomed to the idea that speed is good and faster is always better. While no-one wants to return to the days of frustrating slow dial-up internet, our insatiable need for speed does not lend itself to humane, universally accessible digital design. This is where the concept of pacing becomes a crucial element that shapes how we navigate our online journeys. Pacing, in the context of online browsing, determines the rhythm and speed at which people consume, interact and move through the virtual landscape. It’s like a dance between how engaged users are and how the design orchestrates their journey.

We live in a diverse digital world where user demographics vary, as do their requirements and preferences. This makes the need for adaptable pacing essential. Different users consume information at different speeds and have different learning styles and comfort levels with technology. Recognising and embracing this diversity isn’t just a matter of good practice, it’s a key aspect of building an inclusive and user-focused online environment.

This blog aims to explore the profound impact of pacing on user experience, highlight the challenges that come with fixed or fast pacing and advocate for pacing as one of the key principles of a more humane web.

Pacing through scrolling

Pacing is often directly correlated with scrolling. How we scroll sets the rhythm and is closely linked to user experience and accessibility. Pacing is also intricately linked to our attention, the currency of the online world. It’s all about grabbing our attention and holding it for as long as possible. The internet is designed for speed because it needs to keep users interested and engaged. 

However, the way social media and websites use pacing is quite different. Social media relies on supercomputers to feed us content designed to keep us glued to our screens. Our attention is directly linked to their revenue. Therefore pacing is crucial for their business model. The algorithms quickly assess who we are, what we like and what will likely keep us engaged. We are jumping through different kinds of content within seconds while also being served ads in between. 

As Anthony Jacquin describes in one of the episodes of Your Undivided Attention podcast, social media platforms use entertainment, engagement and endless scrolling to put our minds in a trance-like state of mind in which time stands and we simply keep scrolling throughout the day. This artificially created state of mind is also when we are most receptive to suggestions and recommendations through ads. With each scroll, they make money. Fast pacing is promoted as a way to save us time and provide a good user experience but too often it is a trick to keep us busy, moving quickly between different content so our minds don’t stop and realise this may not be the best use of our time.

However, websites work slightly differently from social media. Most websites don’t hog our attention in the way that social platforms do, but they do often try to drive us to move fast on the assumption that this will deliver higher conversion rates.

Different users, different needs

Each person is unique and therefore has unique needs that are formed through a mixture of factors that influence their optimal pace, such as age, accessibility needs and cultural differences. Different users have different consumption speeds, learning styles and comfort levels with technology.

Acknowledging and respecting differences in pacing preferences can have a significant impact on user engagement, effective communication, positive relationships and inclusivity. Platforms and services that enable users to customise the pace of content consumption or interaction can provide a more tailored and user-centric – and therefore more accessible – experience.

3 reasons why pacing should be considered in any digital project 

  1. User empowerment and control: Content and platforms that provide users with control over pacing can have a positive impact on their experience. When people can set their own pace, it contributes to a sense of empowerment and autonomy, creating a more positive and less stressful experience. Users are more likely to engage with content that aligns with their preferred pace, allowing them to comfortably consume information without feeling rushed or bored. 
  2. Accessibility and inclusivity: Consideration for diverse pacing needs is essential, especially for users with cognitive disabilities or learning differences. Providing options for adjustable pacing makes content more accessible, ensuring that individuals with varying cognitive abilities can engage comfortably.
  3. Digital wellbeing: Pacing is linked to digital wellbeing, which involves promoting a healthy and balanced relationship with technology. Platforms that encourage mindful and intentional use, allowing users to set their own pacing preferences, can contribute to a more positive impact on mental health. 

The impact of pacing on mental health

As mentioned above, pacing can have a significant impact on mental health and digital wellbeing, which is why it’s one of the key principles of humane web design. 

Pacing extends beyond the digital world as it impacts our stress levels, cognitive load and overall wellbeing. Users might feel pressured to keep up with rapidly changing information and dynamic interfaces, leading to increased levels of stress and anxiety. The fast-paced online environment can leave us feeling overwhelmed and cause decision fatigue where users become mentally exhausted from constantly processing information or making rapid decisions.

Pacing also affects – and over time gradually shapes – our attention span. The web is designed to rapidly change content, making it challenging for users to stay focused, engage with and absorb information, which can lead to feelings of frustration and reduced productivity. 

Furthermore, research suggests that consuming fast-paced content before bedtime (combined with the blue light that we are exposed to from our screens) can significantly impact sleep quality by disrupting melatonin production that is linked to our sleep cycles. Over time, this can lead to sleep disorders, affecting both our mental and physical health and wellbeing.

5 examples of mindful pacing

Pacing, which could be defined as the speed at which we browse the web, but is also impacted by factors such as pop-ups and calls to action encouraging us to click away from our original intention, is fundamental for user experience on websites. As this isn’t always straightforward, a poor user experience can lead to disengagement and low user satisfaction. People need to feel a sense of control over their pace and losing this control can become a barrier to user satisfaction. Here are some examples of mindful pacing for designers and developers to consider in their next projects:

  1. Diversified content – Avoid relying on a specific type of content. Users might face temporary disabilities (like being in a loud place), so offering alternatives like video transcripts can help them engage in the most convenient way for them at that moment. A good example is Tom’s newsletter on sustainable business, Oxymoron on Substack, where readers have the option to choose between reading the content and listening to an audio recording.
  2. Playable images over embedded videos – Embedded videos, especially those set to autoplay, take control away from the user and download the video content to their devices, impacting user experience, accessibility and digital sustainability. A more considerate approach is to use an image with a play button overlay, like we did on Good Energy’s website. This approach empowers users by enabling them to play the video only if they truly want to watch it, saving data, energy and digital carbon emissions.
  3. Mindful breaks – Recognising the importance of mindful user experience, we created a meditation page on the Wholegrain Digital site if users can’t find what they’re looking for. Our hope is that people visiting our site can find a moment to slow down and take a few deep breaths rather than feeling frustrated with a regular error message.
  4. Optimised animations – instead of embedding a large video, our team of developers experimented with creating a Lottie animation for our client, Nu Heat. Not only is this animation a fraction of the size that a regular video would add to the page (the entire animation is only 117kb!), but it also features control arrows. These arrows empower users to regulate the speed at which they move through each step, providing a flexible and user-friendly alternative to fixed-paced videos.
  5. Flexible speed options – Videos and audio recordings provide users with the opportunity to find a comfortable pace. Platforms like empower users by allowing them to adjust the playback speed of videos. Similarly, the Audible app for audiobooks enables users to control the narration speed, giving them the freedom to tailor the pace according to their preferences. This flexibility enhances the overall user experience, ensuring that individuals can engage with content at a speed that suits them best.

As we explore pacing and its impact, it’s important to realise the nuanced nature of this topic. On the one hand, speed is good for the environment by saving energy when users quickly find what they’re looking for and go offline faster. On the other hand, although speed is good for saving energy and not making people wait for things, it may not align with our mental wellbeing if it feels too rushed and uncomfortable. Finding the right balance is key for a smooth and considerate online experience – a harmony between sustainability in the online world and a pace that feels right for people.

Let’s embrace pacing for a more humane web

In the complex dance of online journeys, pacing appears to be an invisible choreographer, directing the flow of user experiences. Pacing is not just about speed, it’s about creating a considerate and harmonious online environment that is built on empowerment, inclusivity and positive experiences. It has a significant impact on diverse user needs and preferences as well as our mental health and overall wellbeing.

Slowing down the pace to suit all users not only opens up the internet to a more diverse audience, it also allows to regain control of our minds and avoid the impulsive consumerism encouraged when we don’t have time to slow down and think before we make any decisions, which will reduce human stress and also be better for the planet. All of this highlights the importance of embracing pacing as an element in our digital projects with a far-reaching impact, so that together we can create a web that has a positive impact on the wellbeing of people and planet.