Slow download speeds capture interest of Internet surfers

As cable companies and Internet access providers compete for customers by offering broadband service, cable modems and digital subscriber lines (DSLs) as faster access to the Web, slower download speeds sometimes prompt greater user response than faster download speeds, a study says.

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar, associate professor of communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State, and Carson Wagner, assistant professor of advertising at the University of Texas, publish their findings in the current issue of the journal, Media Psychology.

With the growth of Internet-based communication, for everything from electronic commerce to news, researchers have theorized about the impact of download speed — the time required for the images and information that comprise a full page on the Web to display on a computer screen. The study shows that download speeds induce behavioral and physiological changes for audience members who access information on the Web. The results also show slower download speeds increase arousal in some instances.

Through three separate experiments, the researchers measured the impact of download speed by monitoring skin conductance levels (SCLs) of participants exposed to slow- or fast-loading versions of the same Web site. In the first study, results showed an erotic image that downloaded slowly heightened the arousal level of audience members more than the same image when downloaded at a faster speed.

“That’s a somewhat counter-intuitive result,” Sundar said. “That outcome and the concept of download speed in general represent one of the important theoretical contributions of the study. Download speed is alien to users of traditional media such as television. On the Internet, it provides an almost ever-present consideration.

“We believe many practical uses exist through a better understanding of download speed and its impact,” he added. “For example, given that arousal is positively related to memory, sites that generate greater physiological excitation are likely to be more memorable. Also, slow downloading can be effectively harnessed by interface designers and Web site developers to improve audience involvement in their sites.”

Skin conductance levels, a psychophysiological measure of the degree to which sweat glands get activated by calculating the level of electrical conductance through the skin, provide a common tool for communications researchers because the levels allow researchers to estimate people’s arousal responses. SCLs measure only the intensity, not the nature or kind, of emotion and the increased levels noted in the experiments could be a result of either anticipation or frustration as a result of download speed. Still, while researchers could not differentiate between those emotions, they did show download speed affected how audience members related to the content that was transferred from the Web to their computers.

In each of the experimental designs, audience members exposed to slow-downloading pages and then given the opportunity to freely browse the Web were more active in their investigations. They tried more hyperlinks and visited more sites than audience members who viewed pages with faster initial download speeds. In the past, such behavioral and physiological impacts were understood only as a result of the content of communication, not the manner in which the information was delivered.

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