KeywordsWeb Internet Reaction time Response time Display
For nearly two decades, psychologists and behavioral scientists have used the internet, particularly the World Wide Web, to gather data for their research. Developing from crude early experiments using simple HTML forms (see Musch & Reips, 2000, for an overview of early research) to more recent complex studies replicating within- and between-subjects response time effects seen in laboratory studies (e.g., Crump, McDonnell, & Gureckis, 2013), Web-based psychological research has become mainstream. Two key factors have contributed to the rapid expansion in Web-based research. First, it has become much easier to recruit participants, using commercial panels, and allowing researchers to run experiments that might take weeks in the lab in a matter of days or hours. Second, Web-based technology has developed to allow relatively easy generation of experiments online.
The expansion in Web-based experimentation has meant that examining whether data collected online are valid and reliable is becoming an increasingly important part of the research process. In this article, we examine whether the response time data from Web-based experiments are accurate enough to be potentially useful to researchers. Before doing so, we will give a short overview of how Web-based research has developed recently.
Early research online tended to rely on unpaid volunteers to act as participants, recruited in several ways: via emailed links to an online experiment, online advertising, referral from sites indexing Web-based psychological research, and collaborations with organizations that have large amounts of Web traffic (e.g., Kinderman, Schwannauer, Pontin, & Tai, 2013; Reimers, 2007). More recently, social networks such as twitter and Facebook have been used to recruit experimental participants. These approaches have had limited control over participant numbers, meaning that experiments have often had to remain active for long periods of time to gather enough data to test a hypothesis. Recently, many of these problems have been obviated by the emergence of crowdsourcing marketplaces such as Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT, or MTurk elsewhere) in the US (see Mason & Suri, 2012), and reward panels such as Maximiles in the UK (see Reimers, 2009, for a brief overview). This has allowed researchers to recruit relatively reliable, demographically diverse participants, quickly, with minimum effort, and for low cost (see, e.g., Mason & Suri, 2012, for discussion of potential ethical issues around this). The use of AMT is increasing rapidly. For example, of the 63 publications in psychology and the behavioral sciences that include the phrase “mechanical turk,” listed by Web of Science, over half (33) were published between January and September 2013, the time of writing this article. Since there is increasing evidence that traditional laboratory findings are replicated in online samples (e.g., Crump et al., 2013; Kassam, Morewedge, Gilbert, & Wilson, 2011; Keller, Gunasekharan, Mayo, & Corley, 2009; Reimers & Maylor, 2005; Simcox & Fiez, 2014; Stewart, Reimers, & Harris, 2014), the use of Web-based methods and samples such as those on AMT are being increasingly used in favor of more time consuming laboratory experiments. Indeed, such is the popularity of AMT among psychology researchers, that concern has been raised about the over-participation of some workers across multiple related studies (Chandler, Mueller, & Paolacci, 2013).
In parallel with the development of participant recruitment techniques, the technology for conducting research online has also progressed. The earliest studies tended to use simple HTML to display text, and forms to gather data from participants (e.g., Birnbaum, 2000), with limited use of images or graphics. In contrast, survey software (e.g., Qualtrics, SurveyMonkey, Google Consumer Surveys) now allows nonprogrammers to set up studies with full randomization and random allocation of participants to conditions, as well as easily embed images and other rich content. The browser-plugin-based software Adobe Flash and Java have both been through several iterations in the past ten years, improving their capacity for handing video and other material. The arrival of the HTML5 standard now provides support for video, audio, and animation natively within the browser.
Researchers have used some of these technologies to create more user-friendly psychological testing software, such as ScriptingRT (Schubert, Murteira, Collins, & Lopes, 2013), WebExp (Keller et al., 2009), and WEXTOR (Reips & Neuhaus, 2002).
In addition to new software, the processing power of hardware has continued to follow Moore’s law, leading to an approximate doubling of computer speed every two years, meaning machines are capable of handling ever more complex dynamic stimuli and calculations.
Although it is now feasible to run a wide variety of experiments quickly and reliably online, the majority of studies, for example those listed on sites such as the Hanover College http://www.psych.hanover.edu/research/exponnet.html and http://www.socialpsychology.org/expts.htm, use untimed surveys or questionnaires, rather than variables that are captured in response times or speed–accuracy trade-offs. This may to some degree reflect the field in general, and the relative difficulty inherent in setting up response time measures online, but it is likely also to reflect a degree of skepticism about the accuracy of response time measures recorded in a Web browser online.
Although the technology and possibilities for online experimentation have developed since the earliest, text-based experiments in the mid-1990s, the discussion about the pros and cons of Web versus lab research has tended to focus on the same issues. Arguments for the use of Web-based research include the ease, speed, and cost-effectiveness of using online samples, and the more representative nature of online respondents relative to the undergraduate psychology students who typically participate in lab-based studies. Arguments against the use of Web-based research include concerns about the reliability of data, particularly with reference to repeat submissions, “junk” responding, distractions, lack of motivation, and possible variability in the way in which stimuli are presented, or responses collected, and technical variability across participants’ computer systems.
Response time experiments online
Java is a powerful, flexible development platform, which runs on a wide range of computing devices. In Web browsers, Java runs as an ostensibly sandboxed client-side virtual machine plugin. For users that have the Java plugin installed, opening a webpage that contains a Java applet will initialize Java, which will then run the applet. The sandboxed nature of the Java virtual machine means that any code run should be limited in what it is permitted to do with a user’s machine, such as restricting access to files and prohibiting installation of software. Advantages of Java include the fact that is it a well-established programming language, and it is theoretically platform-independent. It is also used extensively on non-PC devices: For example, smartphone Android apps are written in a customized version of Java, with about 675,000 apps and 25 billion downloads (Rosenberg, 2012). Disadvantages include the fact that many browsers do not have the plugin, the relatively long initialization time, the number of different versions of the Java runtime, and the complexity of the language, which makes designing simple user interfaces less than straightforward. A further downside is that in 2013, serious security issues in Java were uncovered, prompting the US Department of Homeland Security to recommend that users uninstall Java to maintain security. Browsers now often present a security warning before Java applets are displayed, meaning that applets no longer start automatically.
Adobe Flash is an authoring platform primarily used for the development of Web-based games, animations and interactive tools. Flash is installed on a large majority of Web-facing computers. Like Java, Flash Player runs as a client-side sandboxed virtual machine. Advantages of Flash include the ubiquity of its plugin; the complexity of the programs that can be implemented, particularly since the advent of ActionScript 3; its ostensible platform independence; and the fact that the software has been designed specifically for authoring interactive materials on the Web. Disadvantages include the proprietary nature of the software, its absence from Apple touchscreen devices such as iPhones and iPads, and its own potential security issues.
All three software approaches mentioned above have been used in an attempt to examine the feasibility of collecting response time data from online behavioral experiments. In general, the results have been fairly similar across implementation, although it is rare to see examples of direct comparisons across different implementations. Research has generally taken two approaches. The first approach has involved attempts to replicate well-established response time effects online; to see whether the same patterns of results can be found. The second has been to use specialist hardware to examine how accurately browser-based software can display stimuli and record response times.
Comparisons of Web- versus lab-based experimental results
In the past few years, several authors have attempted to compare response time data between online and lab-based collection, or replicate classic response-time-based findings online. We (Reimers & Stewart, 2007) compared participant response times within subjects, using a C++-based millisecond-accurate response system, and the same experiment coded in Flash and run on a browser. Participants completed the same simple and choice reaction time experiments using the accurate system, using Flash in a browser run on a laboratory computer, and using Flash on their own computer in their own time. We found that response times on the Flash system were recorded as around 40 ms longer than those on the accurate system, but that relatively little random noise was introduced in the Flash conditions. We also examined response times using cellphones running Adobe Flash Lite, which gave much less reliable data in some cases (Reimers & Stewart, 2008). More recently, Schubert et al. (2013) compared Stroop task performance between laboratory and Web-based Flash, and found broadly similar performance.
Rather than directly compare experimental results across Web and lab implementations, a number of recent studies have attempted to replicate well-established response-time-based phenomena online. The rationale behind this is that if well-established, “classic” results can be replicated, then the details of differences in timings online are relatively unimportant. Most published replication attempts have shown very similar results to those from lab-based studies. In one of the earliest examples, Reimers and Maylor (2005) used Adobe Flash to examine the effects of age on task-switching performance, finding largely similar results to those from laboratory studies, where data existed. Similarly, Keller at al. (2009) replicated a response time effect in a psycholinguistic experiment; Simcox and Fiez (2014) replicated flanker and lexical decision effects online. In perhaps the most extensive set of replication attempts, Crump et al. (2013) used AMT to attempt to replicate Stroop, switching, flanker, Simon, Posner cueing, attentional blink, subliminal priming, and category learning tasks. The authors replicated the majority of the effects, including a small 20-ms visual cueing effect. The two situations in which effects could not be replicated were for short-duration masked priming (with prime durations of 64 ms or less), and for category learning (which was not response-time-based, and appeared to be down to motivational issues in the participants).
Direct measurement of Web-based timing accuracy
The second strand of relevant research has examined the timing performance of Web-based testing setups using specialist software or hardware. One of the earlier attempts to examine system performance for browser-based experiments was by Keller et al. (2009). They looked specifically at the Java-based experimental software WebExp for measuring apparent response times. They used keypress repetitions as a known response time, noting that when a key on a keyboard is pressed and held down, after a while the operating system generates repeated keypresses with a known and adjustable interval between them. Since all of the intervals are known, keypress repeats can be used to assess the accuracy of a piece of experimental software’s timings. For example, if an experimenter sets the keystroke repetition rate to 300 ms, he or she can generate a stream of keypresses with a known 300-ms interval between them, and examine what the software measured as the interval, giving a measure of timing accuracy.
A similar software-based approach was used by Simcox and Fiez (2014), who used a script running on the test machine to generate a stream of keypresses with fixed intervals between them and measured the accuracy with which these intervals replicated across repeated runs of the same script. Like Keller et al. (2009), they found very good timing performance.
Although the findings of Keller et al. (2009) and Simcox and Fiez (2014) are informative, there are two reasons why they may lead to underestimation of timing errors. The first is that in both cases the input keypresses are generated by the same system as is used for recording the keypress timing accuracy. Although this is an understandable approach to take, it means that both stimulus generation and response time recording rely on the same system clock. If the clock information available to generation and recording software is consistent but inaccurate, there is no way to detect this. The second potential problem is that software-based approaches tend to measure the gaps between multiple keypress events, rather than the gap between presentation of a stimulus and a keypress, which is typically the focus of behavioral research. In a system in which, for example, the testing software recorded all events as occurring 100 ms after they actually did, the gaps between keypresses would remain the same and would be measured accurately, but response times to stimuli would be measured as 100 ms longer than they actually were. Just looking at the gap between keypresses would risk giving a false impression that the system was recording responses accurately. For that reason, a better setup would be to use external hardware to respond to stimuli displayed on the screen with a fixed, known response time, and compare with the response times measured by the software under consideration. In other words, using hardware to mimic a human participant, but with known response parameters.
The second study was conducted by Schubert et al. (2013), using their bespoke Flash-based testing setup ScriptingRT. They used a photodiode attached to the screen to generate responses either directly, or using a solenoid to press a key on a standard keyboard. Their main focus was on comparing response time variability using ScriptingRT with that using testing software such as E-Prime and DMDX. They found somewhat higher variance in their Flash-based setup, although it was still small, relative to other testing software, and 10- to 35-ms longer measured response times. Since the response system was not validated, it was not possible to estimate the absolute overestimation of response times using ScriptingRT, but the overestimation was not markedly longer than using traditional testing packages.
Finally, in contrast to research that has examined the accuracy of response times in online experiments, a much smaller literature has examined the accuracy of presentation durations online. Although for most research, the precise control over stimulus durations is not vital, several research areas—such as, for example, masked priming, iconic memory, and change blindness—require more accurate presentation timings. Existing research suggests that stimulus duration accuracies are reasonably good. For example, Simcox and Fiez (2014) used a photodiode to compare actual and intended visual presentation durations under Adobe Flash, and found reasonably accurate presentations. Schubert et al. (2013) found that their Flash-based stimulus presentation was around 24 ms longer than intended, across three presentation durations.
This evidence using specialist hardware suggests that it might be feasible to run timing-sensitive experiments online, both those that require accurate stimulus presentation durations, and those that measure response times online. However, even the most extensive existing studies (Neath et al., 2011; Schubert et al., 2013) have been run on just one or two systems, meaning the although we have some idea of how much within-system variability may arise from running an experiment in a Web browser, we have no idea how much between-system variability exists.
For within-subjects experiments, or tacitly within-subjects experiment in which participant performance is compared to a baseline condition (e.g., switch costs, Simon effect magnitude, priming magnitude, Stroop effect), between-system variability is not an issue. Measured Stroop effects or switch costs would be the same even if measured response times were much longer than actual response times. However, within-system variability would be an issue. If a system introduced large amounts of noise into each measured response time, the power to detect differences between conditions would be reduced. This could be compensated for by using a larger number of trials (see, e.g., Damian, 2010, for a discussion).
For between-subjects experiments, between-system variability is more of an issue, as it introduces random noise into estimates of group means for response times in different conditions. Large variability between systems would make it harder to detect differences between groups. Without having an estimate of between-system variability, it is not possible to estimate how much power would be lost in a given Web-based response time experiment as a result of variability in performance across different machines.
Of more concern, there appear to be two areas in which between-system variability risks leading to false positive findings: Correlational studies and longitudinal studies. If, for example, older operating systems measured much longer response times than newer ones, and older people tended to use older operating systems, spurious age effects might arise. Similarly, if, say, the browser Firefox is used by a greater proportion of men than other browsers, and it happens to record faster response times, then spurious sex differences could be obtained. For longitudinal data, if upgrades to operating systems or hardware mean that overestimation of response times decreases, it may appear that a cohort is getting faster (or not getting slower) with age.
Finally, we note that we are only referring to simple experimental designs that present individual stimuli, and require no specialist hardware. For experiments that require synchronization of input or output across modalities or different pieces of hardware, small timing differences could have substantial effects on the results.
The aim of the research reported here was therefore to attempt to quantify the extent to which display durations and measured response times may vary across participants for nonbehavioral reasons. To do this, we use specialist hardware to measure stimulus display durations accurately, and generate responses to stimuli with fixed, known latencies.
In Study 1, we used four different systems to examine systematically the effects of implementation (Flash vs. HTML5), browser type (Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Chrome), and duration or stimulus or response latency (short, medium, or long). For the least powerful system in this group, we also examine the effect of concurrent processor load on timing performance. In Study 2, we use a single duration and latency, on a single browser, to examine variability across a further 15 systems running the same code.
We constrained this analysis just to Windows PCs. We found that 85 %–90 % of participants who complete our online experiments do so using a Windows PC. Most of the remainder use a Mac. Very few (<1 %) participants use other operating systems, such as Linux. We refer readers interested in Mac response time measurements to Neath et al.’s (2011) article.
The unique contributions of this article include (a) a direct comparison of the timing properties of two popular ways of running online experiments—Flash and HTML5; (b) a systematic test of stimulus presentation and response recording accuracy across different browsers and durations; and (c) an examination of system-to-system variability and exploration of the potential causes of that variability.
The aim of Study 1 was to examine the ways and extent to which timings in online research might be subject to noise. We were interested both in the variability in timing within a given computer system, and across systems. We used a Black Box Toolkit Version 2 (www.blackboxtoolkit.com; see also Plant, Hammond, & Turner, 2004, for an introduction to its Version 1 predecessor) to examine timing accuracy. The toolkit is a piece of hardware designed for use by psychologists and neuroscientists to record stimulus presentation timings and respond with known response times. Specifically it can detect and record visual and auditory stimulus onset and offset with sub-millisecond accuracy, using opto-detectors attached to a computer monitor, and microphones placed in front of a computer’s loudspeakers. It can also generate events with precise latencies, such as sounds and switch closures. By dismantling a keyboard or mouse, and attaching wires on either side of a key or mouse button, the switch closure can then generate an event like a keypress or mouse click. This allows the toolkit to generate responses to stimuli with a known, precise latency. For example, it can generate a keypress exactly 300 ms after a stimulus appears on a screen (although this setup does not take into account key travel time or switch registration time that would be a part of a real human’s response time). The testing software can measure the apparent response time, allowing examination of how it deviates from the actual response time.
Visual display duration (VDD)
The Flash version of this procedure was coded in ActionScript 3 with a presentation rate of 60 frames per second (fps). It used the Timer() procedure linked to an event listener to specify how long after the square was presented the square should be hidden again. [We separately used the alternative setInterval() method in initial testing, which gave similar results.]
Actual durations were recorded using the black box toolkit, using its inbuilt Digital Stimulus Capture procedure. An opto-detector was attached to the screen to detect stimulus presentation durations. The toolkit recorded only onsets and offsets of stimuli, so a brightness threshold had to be set to mark onset and offset. Thresholds set for triggering varied according to ambient light and monitor brightness and contrast, but were between 100 (78 %) and 115 (90 %) on the toolkit’s internal scale.
Response time measurement
This procedure simulates a participant with a known response time. Once started, Flash/HTML5 code presents a white square on a black background (as in VDD), starts a timer, and awaits a keypress response. On receiving a response, the timer is stopped, the time elapsed is recorded, the white square disappears, and a 500-ms ITI begins, followed by the next trial, for a total of 100 trials. After 100 trials, the recorded response times for all trials are displayed by the Flash/HTML5 code on the screen and can be copied and pasted for analysis.
Here, we had the black box toolkit respond with response times of precisely 150, 300, and 600 ms. We used 150 ms as the lower bound for response times in a simple reaction time experiment; 300 ms as the lower bound for response times in a basic choice reaction time experiment; and 600 ms for a more typical response time in a speeded categorization or judgment experiment. Since response variability is largely in proportion to response time, the types of experiment that are most susceptible to the effects of hardware or software variability are those with the shorter response times.
The tests were run using the toolkit’s inbuilt Digital Stimulus Capture and Response procedure. As before, an opto-detector was attached to the screen to detect stimulus onset. To allow the toolkit to generate a keypress, a standard Dell USB keyboard (model SK-8115) was dismantled, and wires placed on top and bottom contacts for the space bar. These wires were connected to the active switch closure terminals in the toolkit’s breakout board. The toolkit was programmed to generate a switch closure a precise, constant period of time after stimulus onset. This would be detected by the system running the Flash or HTML5 experiments as a space bar press.
Hardware and operating systems
Top: Differences between intended and actual presentation (positive = longer duration than intended) on a Dell OptiPlex 760 desktop computer for intended durations of 50, 150, and 500 ms. Bottom: Differences between actual and measured response times (positive = overestimation) on a Dell OptiPlex 760 desktop for actual response times of 150, 300, and 600 ms
Deviations from intended stimulus durations (top) and actual response times (bottom) using a Sony Vaio under low load
Deviations from intended stimulus durations (top) and actual response times (bottom) using a Sony Vaio under high load
Deviations from intended stimulus durations (top) and actual response times (bottom) using a Dell OptiPlex 790
Deviations from intended stimulus durations (top) and actual response times (bottom) using a Dell OptiPlex 9010 machine
Comparison of response times (RTs) and display performance for all machines included in the test, for 300-ms RTs and 150-ms presentation durations
Deviation From Actual RT (ms)
Deviation From Specified Display Duration (ms)
Dell OptiPlex 760
HD2400 Pro (134)
Dell OptiPlex 9010
Intel HD 2500 (~225)
Sony Low Load
Atom N280 (300)
Intel GMA 250 (~25)
Sony High Load
Dell OptiPlex 790
Intel HD 2000 (~200)
GMA 4500M (~50)
Intel HD 4000 (465)
GMA 4500M (~50)
RM Expert 3040Ma
Intel GMA 4500 (~50)
RM Expert 3040Mb
Intel GMA 4500 (~50)
Cel. D 220 (402)
SIS Mirage 3 (~15)
HP Pavilion g6
i5 M 480 (2451)
Intel HD (Core i5) (~75)
RM Desktop 320a
Intel HD 2500 (~250)
GMA 4500M (~50)
RM Desktop 320b
Intel HD 2000 (~200)
RM Desktop 310
GeForce GT630 (722)
RM MINIPC 214
Intel HD 4000 (465)
Dell OptiPlex 780
Intel GMA 4500 (~50)
Intel HD 2000 (~200)
i3 M 350 (1911)
Intel HD Core i3 (~75)
Dell OptiPlex 760 Desktop PC This was a machine running Windows XP that had until recently been used in an academic’s office, but had been replaced as its processing capacity was limited.
Sony Vaio VPCW11S1E netbook, low load This was a four-year-old netbook running Windows XP as an example of a very low-end computer that might be used to run an experiment.
Sony Vaio VPCW11S1E netbook, high load This setup examined what we defined as a boundary case for Web-based response time testing: An obsolescent machine with slow processor and low memory, running multiple applications during the test. For this test, we used the same netbook as above; this time before running the tests, we started a Skype video call (transmitting but not receiving video), and played a YouTube video in another—nonvisible—browser tab. According to the task manager application, this took CPU use up from less than 10 % in the low load configuration to 60 %–100 %. The Skype call and video played throughout the display and response time measurement process.
Dell OptiPlex 790 Desktop PC This PC is the standard build of machine used in City University’s undergraduate research labs.
Dell OptiPlex 9010 Desktop PC This PC is used for analysis and modeling work, so has a higher specification than the standard testing machines.
Dell OptiPlex 760
These results are given in Table 1. It appears that, in general, within-machine variability was very low, both for display duration and response time measures. Display durations were longer than those intended in some cases, particularly for the shorter (50- and 150-ms) durations. Overall, there were minimal effects of implementation or browser type, with the exception perhaps of longer display durations for HTML5 and Internet Explorer.
Sony Vaio Netbook, low load
These results are given in Table 2. As before, variability was generally low, with a couple of exceptions in the HTML5 response time conditions, both of which stem from a single outlying long measured response time. Again, as before, measured display durations and response times were largely unaffected by browser and implementation, except again for longer durations in the HTML5/Internet Explorer combination.
Sony Vaio Netbook, high load
These results are given in Table 3. The effect of load on timing in this machine was relatively small. Response times were slightly longer, and variability rather larger (often caused by a small number of very long durations) than in the low-load condition.
Dell OptiPlex 790
These results are given in Table 4. Although the means and SDs for stimulus presentation are relatively good, response times are overestimated by around 80 ms. Despite these large overestimations, standard deviations are small.
Dell OptiPlex 9010
These results are given in Table 5. The results are fairly similar to those from the other Windows 7 machine, in Table 4. Again, although standard deviations are small, overestimation of response times was around 80 ms. The results could also be compared with those from the Dell OptiPlex 760 running Windows XP, in Table 1, since both used the same monitor, removing a source of variance. The standard deviations are similar, but response times are around 30 ms longer on this Windows 7 machine.
Display duration deviations
Overall, the actual time for which a stimulus was displayed was significantly longer than the specified duration. The size of this overlength was around 20 ms. For the majority of the tests, there appears to be an interaction between browser and implementation. Overlong display durations under HTML5 were larger in Internet Explorer than Firefox or Chrome, by around 20 ms, although this effect was smaller for longer durations and for more powerful machines. For a given duration, the maximum difference in means between browsers running Flash was around 5 ms.
Response time overestimations
In all cases, response times were overestimated. We found no obvious systematic effect of browser type. It did appear that response times were overestimated more in the HTML5 implementation, although this effect was relatively small. However, the clearest effect was in variability across systems. It appeared that the older systems running Windows XP, despite being much less powerful than their newer, Windows 7 counterparts, were much more accurate in their response time measurement. The two Windows 7 machines measured response times that were 30–40 ms longer than the XP machines. It is, of course, possible that the difference would have been larger had we been able to control for processor speed and graphics capability.
Distribution of display and response times
The results of this systematic evaluation of different potential sources of variance in response times and stimulus durations across participants showed a number of things. First, all systems overestimated response times, by at least 30 ms. Second, all systems presented visual stimuli for longer than specified, sometimes by over 50 ms, although more generally by around 10–20 ms. Third, within-system variability appears to have been small, with standard deviations in presentation durations or recorded response times generally around 10 ms. Fourth, Flash and HTML5 gave, overall, fairly similar timing results. The only consistent difference that we noted was that display durations tended to be longer for HTML5 run on Internet Explorer, at least on less powerful systems. Fifth, apart from this, there were minimal differences between browsers in recorded response times and presentation durations. Sixth, we found nontrivial differences across systems in measured response times and duration timings.
Overall, these findings suggest that within-subjects Web-based experiments should not be constrained by technical limitations. All of the systems we tested showed low standard deviations for response times, meaning that minimal power would be lost by the random noise introduced by the system. In fact, the standard deviations measured here were often not much larger than those we obtained using the psychological testing software E-Prime.
The results also suggest that between-subjects experimental results will be largely unaffected by the choice of browser or the time duration to be measured. However, the results do suggest that there may be more substantial variability across systems. This means that between-subjects experiments may be subject to greater noise, and may have implications for correlational studies in which system performance is confounded with other variables of interest. In the present results we examined only four systems. To get a better idea of the cross-system variability of timing performance in Flash and HTML5, we examined timing on a further 15 systems.
In Study 1, we found differences in measured response times and, to a lesser degree, stimulus presentation durations, across the four systems tested, but it is unclear how representative this variability might be of the general Web-experiment-participating public. This second study expanded on the results of Study 1 by running a series of shorter timing tests on a larger number of PCs. By examining a greater number of PCs, which were selected to vary in Windows operating system version, processing speed, graphics capability, and memory, it would be possible to start to determine how much between-system variability we should expect in Web-based research, and the sources of some of this variability.
In this study, we repeated the measures used in Study 1: visual display duration and response time measurement. However, given the relatively small effect of duration, and the fact that we have documented it already, we used just a single duration for these wider tests, selecting the middle durations from Study 1: 150 ms for presentation, and 300 ms for response time. Since many of the machines tested in Study 2 were borrowed from friends and colleagues, we did not want to install new software onto the machine, and only used the browser installed on the machine. For each machine in this study, we ran each test of 100 trials three times and took the average of the means and SDs.
Details of the machines used, and their specs, can be seen in Table 6.
Deviations from the 300-ms response time and 150-ms presentation duration are given in Table 6. All systems overestimated response times, and all systems displayed stimuli for longer than specified. The correlation between overestimation in Flash and overestimation in HTML5 was .82, p < .001, and the correlation between overpresentation in the two systems was .64, p = .003. There was no correlation between overestimation and overpresentation across the systems tested. These results suggest that the cross-system variability is mainly due to factors common to both Flash and HTML5, rather than specific to each of the program implementations.
The measurement error added by Flash and HTML5 does not make much difference to the power of typical experiments. For a worst-case scenario, we assumed a two-condition between-subjects design because, in this case, the large between-computer differences in the systematic overestimation of each response time and the small within-computer trial-to-trial fluctuations would both obscure an effect of condition. (For a within-subject design, only the latter variability would matter.)
One hundred response times were drawn from exponentially modified Gaussian distributions (ex-Gaussians) to simulate 100 trials from each participant. Each simulated participant was assumed to have a different ex-Gaussian: The mean of the Gaussian component was drawn from a uniform distribution between 400 and 600 ms, the standard deviation of the Gaussian component was drawn from a uniform distribution between 25 and 75 ms, and the mean of the exponential component was drawn from a uniform distribution between 50 and 100 ms. The effect of condition was assumed to differ across participants and was drawn from a uniform distribution of between 0 and 100 ms, giving an overall population mean effect size of 50 ms. The assumption of an ex-Gaussian distribution for response times and these parameter values are typical in modeling response time distributions (e.g., Brand & Bradley, 2012).
The lower panel of Fig. 5 repeats the simulation, but assuming Flash/HTML5 measurement error. We assumed that each simulated participant’s simulated computer added a constant to all of their response times, which was drawn from a uniform distribution between 30 and 100 ms. We also assumed that each simulated participant’s simulated computer added random Gaussian noise to each trial, with a standard deviation drawn from a uniform distribution between 6 and 17 ms. These ranges match those we observed in our testing, shown in Table 6. This extra variability makes only a small difference to the number of participants required for 80 % power. Seven more participants were required (an increase of about 10 %), and had a more conventional within-subjects design been used, eliminating the effect of the systematic overestimation of response times, there would be no effective difference. The cost of using Flash/HTML5 to measure differences in response times is low (see Brand & Bradley, 2012, for a similar, theoretical argument).
Implications for Web-based research
With regard to stimulus presentation durations, we would warn against running experiments in which precise stimulus durations are required, particularly those of short duration. Our findings suggest that durations tend to be longer than specified, and that this overpresentation can vary from ~5 to ~25 ms. We also note that on rare occasions, durations can be up to 100 ms longer than specified. Clearly, this would affect, for example, masked priming experiments, and may explain the results of Crump et al. (2013), who failed to replicate well-established findings for very short durations. As such, we would not recommend running experiments that require precise stimulus durations online using Flash or HTML5. On the other hand, for most experiments, variability in presentation durations of up to 25 ms would not be a problem, particularly with such good within-system reliability, meaning Web-based research in these situations should be fine.
For measuring response times, the implications of these findings depend on the design of experiment used. It is very rare simply to wish to measure in absolute terms how quickly someone responds to a stimulus—and in those cases in which such a measurement was required we would definitely discourage the use of Web-based research. The results here indicate that such a measurement would overestimate the response time by 30–100 ms. A between-subjects comparison of response times across two conditions controls for this overestimate and the extra noise from Flash/HTML5 can be offset by running about 10 % more participants. And a within-subjects comparison of response times across two conditions is almost unaffected.
Correlational studies are potentially more problematic. Experiments examining correlations between response times on two different tasks would risk finding spurious false positives from system-to-system variability. More generally, if system properties affecting response time measurement are correlated with demographics of interest, such as gender, age, education or income, or, say, personality measures (e.g., Buchanan & Reips, 2001, found differences in personality between PC and Mac users), then spurious relationships between demographics or personality and response times could be detected. Similarly, longitudinal research could be problematic online, both for finding general trends over time, which would be affected by software and hardware development, and comparing groups’ longitudinal changes in response times, if people of different demographics upgrade more or less frequently, or switch to different types of machine. It would also be the case that studies such as clinical trials, which are not longitudinal in design but may last several years, may be affected by upgrades to hardware or operating system during the trial. This may, of course, also be the case for lab-based research in which hardware or software are updated during a longitudinal study.
Limitations of present research
The research reported here is a fairly comprehensive attempt to measure how response times and stimulus presentation durations vary across systems. However, it is not exhaustive. Our selection of systems was based on a convenience sample, and is not completely representative of the sample of computers on which Web-based experiments are completed. We were not able to deconfound operating system and hardware, as more recent systems tended to have more powerful hardware and more recent versions of Windows running. Nor were we able to test all possible configurations—it is almost inevitable that some untested combinations of hardware, software, and running applications would produce much less reliable results than those reported here. We did not account for variability in input devices (see, e.g., Plant, Hammond, & Whitehouse, 2003), since we were able only to dismantle a single USB keyboard for the response time tests. There is, of course, likely to be variability in timing measured across keyboards (and between, e.g., keyboards, touchscreens, and mice).
A second issue is that it is not clear whether the variability and patterns of quantizing seen across systems are stable phenomena based on hardware or configuration differences, or transient differences that occurred because the two systems were performing different background tasks at the points at which we ran the tests. To discover the cause of the cross-system variability, this would need to be determined. However, since our aim was to estimate variability, and hence the feasibility of running response-time-based Web experiments, this was less important here.
Finally, we note that these studies used simple stimuli, coded as cleanly as possible. It is possible that the use of different methods to record timings or to control stimulus presentation could lead to a different pattern of results. Similarly, the use of large graphics files for visual stimuli could lead to worse timing performance, or to more of an effect of system capabilities on timing performance. More generally, we suggest that researchers should be mindful of the fact that their results are likely to be distortions of the actual response times.
While taking these limitations into account, we have reason to be cautiously positive about measuring response times through a Web browser using Flash or HTML5. Of course, this is a conclusion that could change rapidly, as new operating systems are released, along with new browsers, new versions of Flash, and new input and display devices. As such, this study can only provide a snapshot.
Of course, other sources of participant-generated variance are likely to be larger for Web-based studies than for lab-based studies—for example, lack of attentiveness, misunderstanding of instructions, distractions, motivational limitations, and so on. These are more general issues that researchers must consider when designing and implementing Web-based experiments. We also note that these findings apply specifically to Web-based experiments that use simple visual stimuli. However, it seems from this research that technical variability across systems and within-system noise are likely to make relatively minor contributions to overall variance.
We are grateful to Peter Barr and Angela Ng for technical assistance. Neil Stewart was supported by Economic and Social Research Council Grant Nos. ES/K002201/1 and ES/K004948/1, and by Leverhulme Grant No. RP2012-V-022.
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