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NOW, by Alison Farmer

“NOW”, by Alison Farmer
(Click to visit her site)

Our Perception of “Now” is Three Seconds in Length

For several years now this has been one of my absolute favorite paintings.  I liked it long before I knew the meaning, but when it was explained to me I was doubly hooked:  the string that she is holding is divided into three equal lengths:  three seconds.  The moment of “now.”

Apparently there is a lot of research indicating that three seconds is the “magic” window in MANY human and animal behaviors, from hugs to goodbye waves to babies’ babbling. 

Go read this quick article in Science.  It’s short, fun, and interesting.  I will wait.

Where I Used to See It

Why is Tommy Chong Sitting in Donald's Office???I used to see this painting nearly every day, at Microsoft, in Donald Farmer’s office.  Yes, that Donald Farmer.  The one who works as a stunt double for Tommy Chong (or vice versa).  The genetic donor for PowerPivot Yoda.  And he is also the one who last year left Microsoft for QlikView.

Since he is married to the artist, he gets to use his office as a private gallery of sorts.  And he was kind enough to send me some pictures of the painting last night when I asked.


Why This is Relevant

Someone at Microsoft recently emailed me to ask my opinion: 

“For large PowerPivot workbooks, how long do you think users will expect to wait when they click a slicer?”

My answer was:

“They don’t care that there is a lot of data behind it.  If it isn’t fast, they won’t engage.  The limits of human patience are not the least bit sympathetic to our data volume problems.”

In other words, people expect the click to finish “now,” in three seconds or less, no matter what.  They don’t even think about it – this is biological.

Two Things Happen When Something Takes Too Long…

imageIf a slicer click or related interaction takes too long, two things happen:

1. The user’s train of thought is broken while waiting on the click to complete.  Their mind wanders off topic and they often flip back over to email while they wait.  They sometimes forget to come back. 

They do not “commit” to the experience, do not get absorbed, and generally decide to remain “shallow” in their thoughts toward it.

2. If they grow to expect “long” wait times, they will ultimately decide not to click at all.  If they know that conducting a slicer click exploration of the data is going to take 15 seconds a click, and they may have to execute 10 clicks over the course of their exploration, they simply decide not to do it at all. 

Yeah, in they had invested that 2.5 minutes, they may have discovered something amazing or revolutionary in the data.  Tough.  Humans aren’t built for that.  They want their three seconds, even more than they want their MTV.

Let that sink in for a moment…

The speed of the report heavily impacts the quality of the thinking someone will do when using it. 

It also will impact whether they use the report at all.

It does NOT just impact how long it takes someone to get something done with your report.

Moral of the Story:  Make Your Reports Fast

If you are building interactivity into your reports for others to consume, don’t skimp on the speed.  If something is slow, here are a few simple tricks to consider:

  1. Slicer cross filtering is very often the #1 source of slowdown.
  2. Make your bigger tables tall and narrow.
  3. Don’t use calc columns in your big tables if you can avoid it (do the calc columns in the db if you have one)

It may also be time for better hardware.  We certainly spend a lot of time on hardware selection at Pivotstream.  I like to say that every unit of time or money invested in speed pays off.  I never stop pressing for speed.

Gotta keep things in the moment of now.

Rob Collie

One of the original engineering leaders behind Power BI and Power Pivot during his 14-year career at Microsoft, Rob Collie founded a consulting company in 2013 that is 100% devoted to “the new way forward” made possible by Power BI and its related technologies. Since 2013, PowerPivotPro has rapidly grown to become the leading firm in the industry, pioneering an agile, results-first methodology never before seen in the Business Intelligence space. A sought-after public speaker and author of the #1-selling Power BI book, Rob and his team would like to help you revolutionize your business and your career.

This Post Has 4 Comments
    1. Clicked to see your Website and discovered I’ve been there and have your blog bookmarked, too. Nice moment for me.

  1. It’s hard to agree with some of these opinions. As humans, we have the ability to decide whether or not we will put forth effort in anything we undergo. I can’t say everyone I know has that kind of motivation or drive, because they don’t, but I certainly do.

    I did enjoy the post.

  2. I have a love/hate relationship with being laid off with 10% of our IT department recently. I love the time I now have time to explore and find gems like this. Fun writing about data.

    Your point is, of course, a basic tenet of usability nicely packaged for data deliverers.

    What I was hoping for at the bottom was a nice list of three or five things I should do to improve speed. Oh wait, it was there. But that was so five seconds ago.

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