The other side to this coin is that services could take advantage of the labour illusion to, intentionally or otherwise, trick us into valuing their service more, like the diners watching the chef in action.
Complex searches, such as those done by travel sites, can take time. They have to continually update their results as currency exchange rates fluctuate, while hotels and airlines with out-of-date websites slow down results. Dynamic pricing – updating as demand goes up and down – further complicates matters. Without the resources available to Google, smaller sites’ searches take a noticeable amount of time.
“Companies think about what they can do with that time,” says Buell. “They can advertise to you and create another revenue stream.” A website designer has a choice, then; do you want to create the illusion of value through operational transparency, or look for alternative sources of revenue, like adverts?
Buell’s investigations into operational transparency online raises an interesting question: why do more sites not use this approach?
“There are a couple of reasons why it has not been adopted,” says Buell. “You can’t imagine Google is going to be slowing the service down and showing you the work: Google doesn’t need to do that. They are constantly crawling the internet to show you results in fractions of a second.”
The quality of the results also changes the effectiveness of operational transparency. “Showing behind the scenes is good if it leads to good results,” says Buell. “But the opposite is [also] true.”
For example, Buell created fake online dating sites and manipulated the quality of the profiles that users were matched to. Showing users how they were being matched – on age, height, hobbies, personalities, etc – before revealing attractive profiles led to higher satisfaction. But showing the working followed by unfavourable profiles led people to rate the service very poorly. Users were also less impressed with slow and poor results than fast and poor results. Perhaps the feeling that the site had to “work hard” to find those matches made people think that the quality of the profiles available was very low or that it should have produced better results following the “effort” it put in.