The Atlantic

Why Some Apps Use Fake Progress Bars

Designers use “benevolent deception” to trick users into trusting the system.
Source: Peter Barreras / AP

In a fit of productivity, I did my taxes early this year. They were a bit more complex than usual, so I set aside some time to click through TurboTax and make sure I got everything right. Throughout the process, the online tax-preparation program repeatedly reassured me that it had helped me identify every possible tax deduction I qualify for, and made sure I didn’t make any mistakes. Attractively animated progress bars filled up while I waited for TurboTax to double- and triple-check my returns.

But as I watched one particularly slick animation, which showed a virtual tax form lighting up line by line—yellow or green—I wondered if what I was seeing actually reflected the progress of a real task being tackled in the background. Did it really take that long to “look over every detail” of my returns, which is what the page said it was doing? Hadn’t TurboTax been checking my work as we went?

I sat down with my colleague Andrew McGill to figure out what was going on in the background. We

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