June 10, 2018 · personal ·

Firefox Splash Screens and the Illusion of Work

This is a splash screen add-on for Firefox from way back in 2009, called Splash!. It supports, "sound, opacity, CSS customization, custom images, and much more ...".


I had installed this add-on back on the family computer way back when I was in Grade 5. Back then, my young mind was intrigued by Mozilla Firefox and other Mozilla products. Firefox was a browser that was secure, faster, and had great features like tabbed browsing, adblocking, and download accelerators. In context, I have almost no words to describe how much better Firefox was, when most computers only had either Internet Explorer (IE) 6 or IE 7 installed. I actually celebrated the day when Mozilla Firefox 3 was released, which set a world record for most number of downloads in a day, and I jumped on the bandwagon of hating Internet Explorer and other Micro$oft products. This was around the time that I read up on the browser wars as well as Microsoft's anticompetitive practices. However, even with my love for Firefox and all the benefits of using Firefox, I distinctly remember that I knew I would have trouble switching my family computer's browser to Firefox without causing some chaos. My mother really hates things changing on her computer. Worse yet, she believed that most computer problems were caused by me; more than once was I accused of causing computer problems or downloading a "virus". My solution to smoothly switching browsers was: disguise. Below is an image of an IE8 theme for Firefox:


The dolled-up Firefox looked like the real deal. I also installed an adblocker, as well as Splash!, hoping to ingrain the Firefox logo firmly into my family through a process reminiscent of propaganda tactics. The adblocker was extremely useful, especially back when adblock detection barely existed and when download speeds were slow. Adblock detection was so rare, that the few times I had a negative experience was when I saw the adblocker break some video players with ad content.

However, what really inspired me to write this post was a memory of an option in Splash!. More specifically, an option to set a splash screen delay where it would display and wait a few seconds before finally opening Firefox. I began to wonder why I had set a 5 second splash screen delay even though Firefox took much less time to open. If my eleven year old self had to explain, it would be because it looked cool. Now, I would explain that it gave me the illusion of work, that the machine was computing, churning numbers, and progressing through important tasks. I remember reading a Hacker News post earlier this year about how a particular tax software would, upon completion, display a fake progress bar next to a virtual tax form as if the computer was taking dozens of seconds to check and fill out taxes. The article talked about how this “labor illusion” was quite satisfying to customers. I think I had the same idea with Firefox; even I, the person who was responsible for adding a fake delay to the startup of Firefox, felt some sort of psychological comfort and feeling that the computer was doing useful work whenever I opened Firefox. It's mind-boggling and it kind of reminds me of how placebos sometimes work even when people are told that they are placebos.

Also, I realize I have used this "illusion of labor" trick on an Excel macro that I had written for a research lab in 2015. A single line was all it took:

Application.ScreenUpdating = True

This setting would show exactly what cells were being selected, copied, and being worked on. Setting this boolean to True slows down Excel by a significant amount, but in the case of the runtimes for my macro, it would be a change from perhaps 10 s to 20 s. Finally, setting this boolean to True means that Excel macros won't just freeze the entire screen while it performs its magic and instead show its progress.

I don't think my usage of the Excel trick is malicious in any way. I truly believe that it is a net good for everybody involved, by showing that the macro isn't frozen, allowing a glimpse into the logic and the cells that the macro is using, and also letting the user feel satisfied. I think a good takeaway from this is that the illusion of work can be extremely important. Especially when things like code, coding style, and testing are all hidden away from an end-user. After all, there aren't many other properties for users to judge the quality of some products.