When I went to download Google's Material Design color palette, I was presented with what it called a 0.02 MB download. After chuckling on how an algorithm might not've been written properly, I realized that this entire site was engineered in great detail and wondered, should users really ever see Bytes, Kilobytes, or Gigabytes as units in a download?

The vast majority of items with a download button are between 1MB and 2GB (in my experience), so it shoudn't be unreasonable to be only displaying 0.2MB, 1MB, 20MB, 1294MB, etc. instead of 200KB o 1.2GB, etc. (note I'm using Megabytes and not Mebibytes, here. After all, this is more a question about end-users, who tend not to know the distinction in my experience)

2 Answers 2


The same user may experience different cognitive loads depending on their goal

  1. When the goal is just to understand how long a download will take, a general sense of size is fine. "0.08 MB" will be understood as "a small faction of a MB, something quick to download" and this is low cognitive load.

  2. However in cases where people need to accurately understand the size (say the impact on processing infrastructure for many records) then integer number of kB would be a lower cognitive load, and instil more confidence.

So the goal at hand would determine the optimal display method, regardless of users technical level. In the example of a download screen, where only case (1.) above applies, then only single unit should be presented.

  • 2
    What I've been doing lately for new sites is showing the MB and have a tool tip display the kilobytes on mouse hover. It gives everyone a quick way to see how much it is and also allows the user to see exactly how much they're about to download. I even tracked mouse hovers in those pages and after 1 month and ~40 visits to that page per day 82% of those visitors hovered over and were shown the tool tip - and there was no instruction to display the tool tip either so I think it's safe to say it's a pretty effective way to give everyone what they want without the extra clutter
    – jay_t55
    Nov 13, 2014 at 13:44
  • @jay_t55 I was considering that! Glad to know I wouldn't be the only one out there doing it.
    – Ky -
    Nov 13, 2014 at 17:49
  • At 80% hit rate that is amazingly discoverable. Great info, thanks @jay_t55
    – Jason A.
    Nov 13, 2014 at 21:12
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    @jay_t55 If 82% of your users are hovering over the MB number to see the more accurate KB number, doesn't that mean you should be displaying the more accurate number?
    – endolith
    Jun 24, 2015 at 14:04
  • @endolith it would indeed be very interesting to see if that changes the users behaviour. But careful not to mix-up "discoverable" (something a user realises they can do) with "desirable" (user is actually executing a primary goal)
    – Jason A.
    Jun 24, 2015 at 17:08

I was about to suggest that it differs by audience (high tech users appreciate details : low tech users prefer consistency) but in terms of downloadable assets, I'm reconsidering. Maybe a standard unit of measure would be an improvement for everyone. It definitely can't hurt the low techs, who may not know the relationship between KB, MB and GB. It won't hurt the high techs because we'll just convert it in our head if needed.

Perhaps a better question is which unit of measure should be the standard, MB or GB?

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    For the internet, I don't often encounter GB downloads, especially when looking at end-user things (images, programs, etc.) The largest thing I can imagine is the most feature-filled versions of Adobe Creative Suite or Microsoft Office. Even then, calling them "X,000 MB" gets the idea across. Perhaps once gigabit internet becomes normal, this will change.
    – Ky -
    Nov 13, 2014 at 0:39
  • Yes, I am certain they will change. Back in 2010, it was time-prohibitive to download a gigabyte. A decade earlier, a megabyte took an hour (at 300 baud). Give us a few years and we will be juggling terabytes and wondering if petabyte downloads are unreasonable. Nov 13, 2014 at 1:40
  • 2
    I envy your connection which is no longer time-prohibitive to download a gigabyte. The average here in my corner of the southern USA is ~4Mbps.
    – Ky -
    Feb 16, 2015 at 14:38

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