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First Impressions Count in Website Design

Summary: Web designers have as little as 50 milliseconds to capture the interest of potential customers. Through the halo effect, first impressions can influence subsequent judgments of website credibility and buying decisions.

Web users form first impressions of web pages in as little as 50 milliseconds (1/20th of a second), according to Canadian researchers. In the blink of an eye, web surfers make nearly instantaneous judgments of a web site's "visual appeal." Through the "halo effect" first impressions can color subsequent judgments of perceived credibility, usability, and ultimately influence our purchasing decisions. Creating a fast-loading, visually appealing site can help websites succeed.

"My colleagues believed it would be impossible to really see anything in less than 500 milliseconds," Dr. Gitte Lindgaard told Nature, which reported the research Lindgaard published in Behaviour and Information Technology.

Researchers led by Dr. Gitte Lindgaard at Carleton University in Ontario wanted to find out how fast people formed first impressions. They tested users by flashing web pages for 500 msec and 50 msec onto the screen, and had participants rate the pages on various scales. The results at both time intervals were consistent between participants, although the longer display produced more consistent results. Yet, in as little as 50 ms, participants formed judgments about images they glimpsed. The "halo effect" of that emotional first impression carries over to cognitive judgments of a web site's other characteristics including usability and credibility. We talked to Dr. Lindgaard about her study:

Lindgaard: "I was really interested to know if these aesthetics judgments were a mere exposure effect. There are lots of other reasons that affect user satisfaction.... The data we have just published only speak to the speed with which people decide upon an image being shown to them. People decide very quickly how much they like a web page."

WSO: So if we come to aesthetic judgments (first impressions) within 50-500 ms, is there any cognition involved? Or is 1/20th of a second impression purely a physiological and emotional response?

Lindgaard: "That seems to depend on your age. When a group of high school kids saw the slides for 50 msec they were able to discern much more detail than were older people. People taking part in our experiments were not able to see details, so they had no clue about the informational content. Hence, for adults, this response is unlikely to involve cognition (this corresponds with LeDoux and Damasio's findings)."

WSO: How does loading speed play a part in your research?

Lindgaard: "I think that speed is an important determinant for a lot of factors."

The Halo Effect

The speed at which users form value judgments of web pages precludes much cognitive thought. The users tested had an emotional reaction to home pages that they could not control. This pre-cognitive "affective reaction" is a physiological response to what they see on the screen - a gut reaction. This carry over of first impressions to other attributes of products is sometimes called the "halo effect," or cognitive "confirmation bias" where users search for confirming evidence and ignore evidence contrary to their initial impression. People want to be right, and tend to look for clues that validate their initial hypothesis.

"...the strong impact of the visual appeal of the site seemed to draw attention away from usability problems. This suggests that aesthetics, or visual appeal, factors may be detected first and that these could influence how users judge subsequent experience.... Hence, even if a website is highly usable and provides very useful information presented in a logical arrangement, this may fail to impress a user whose first impression of the site was negative." - (Lindgaard 2006)

Emotion and Cognition

There clearly is an interplay between our emotional reaction to a webpage, and our conscious thought process. "Consumers apply both holistic (emotional) and analytic (cognitive) judgment in the decision to buy a product." So that feeling you evoke in users through a "clean, professional design" can have a halo effect on their buying judgments (Fogg 2003).

Sketches versus Photographs in Recognition Speed

Note that a sketch is recognized more readily than a realistic photograph. While he was at the University of Montreal in the 1960s Michael Mills showed that people would recognize a sketch of a hand in about 50 milliseconds, even though the hand had only three fingers and a thumb. They were much worse recognizing a realistic photo of a real hand. The Immuexa site has drawings as icons.

Visual characteristics of Visual Appeal

The study participants also rated home pages on seven visual characteristics. Five of the seven visual characteristics tested correlated well with visual appeal:

Significant Visual Characteristics of Visual Appeal of Web Pages
interesting - boring(r2 = .91, p < .001)
good design - bad design(r2 = .92, p < .001)
good color - bad color(r2 = .90, p < .001)
good layout - bad layout(r2 = .88, p < .001)
imaginative - unimaginative(r2 =.86, p < .001)
r2 = squared Pearson Product Moment correlation coefficient

Visual appeal and "simple-complex" had a low correlation (r2= .01, p > .80) while there was a moderate correlation between attractiveness and "clear - confusing" judgments (r2 = .39, p < .001).

The Test Pages

Dr. Lindgaard was kind enough to share the top and bottom three webpages in terms of visual appeal. You can find them below, taken in 2002 (note some have changed since then).

Lowest Visual Appeal

orr felt company home page
OrrFelt.com Company Home Page

zyra.org.uk home page
Zyra.org.uk Home Page

purple.com home page
Purple.com Home Page

Highest Visual Appeal

immuexa.com home page
Immuexa.com Home Page

2advanced.com home page
2advanced.com Home Page

modestmousemusic.com home page
Modestmousemusic.com Home Page

Conclusion

This research shows that reliable decisions about your site can be made in as little as 1/20th of a second. This emotional judgment can color subsequent judgments made after further reflection. Even though your site may have superior products, services, or usability, an initial negative impression from a poor or slow design can steer customers towards your competition. You only get one chance to create a good first impression, make it count. A clean, professional, and fast-loading site can ensure that your first impression will be a good one.

Further Reading

BBC News, "First impressions count for web"
Early news report of the "blink" study after the Nature story. "My colleagues believed it would be impossible to really see anything in less than 500 milliseconds." BBC News, Jan. 16, 2006
Carleton University, HOT Lab
Human Oriented Technology Lab at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario Canada researches "interactive technologies for human endeavors with an emphasis on human computer interaction and a user-centred design approach." Dr. Gitte Lindgaard and her colleagues work at the HOT Lab.
Damasio, A. R., "A second chance for emotion,"
in Cognitive Neuroscience of Emotions edited by R. D. Lane and L. Nadel (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
Fogg, B.J., Stanford Guidelines for Web Credibility
Persuasive Technology Lab. Stanford University, 2002 (revised November 2003). In two surveys of over 2600 people Fogg found that a "clean, professional look" was cited by 46.1% of participants when evaluating sites for web credibility. Information Design/Structure was cited 28.5% of the time, while Information Focus was cited 25.1% of the time. While the factors varied for different types of sites, disguised advertising and popup ads, stale content, broken or uncredible links, difficult navigation, typographic errors, popup ads, and slow or unavailable sites were found to harm credibility the most.
Gladwell, M., Blink: the power of thinking without thinking
A fascinating book about how accurate our first impressions can be, especially among those with a lifetime of experience (art appraisers for example). (New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 2005)
Hopkin, M., Web Users Judge Sites in the Blink of an Eye
Nature first reported on the study online on Jan. 13, 2006.
King, A., "Response Time: Eight Seconds, Plus or Minus Two,"
in Speed Up Your Site: Web Site Optimization (http://www.speedupyoursite.com), Indianapolis: New Riders Publishing, 2003. The consensus among HCI researchers is to deliver useful content within 1 to 2 seconds (navigation bar, search form) and your entire page within 8 to 10 seconds (8.6 seconds was the figure most cited).
King, A., "Flow in Web Design,"
in Speed Up Your Site: Web Site Optimization (http://www.speedupyoursite.com), Indianapolis: New Riders Publishing, 2003. Fast, well-designed sites can actually create a flow state in users. In fact, according to a recent study, over 47% of users have experienced flow on the Web.
Ledoux, J., The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life
(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).
Lindgaard G., Fernandes G. J., Dudek C. & Brown, J., "Attention web designers: You have 50 milliseconds to make a good first impression!"
Tested subjects by displaying web pages (saved to disk) for 500ms or 50ms for "visual appeal." The report concludes that "...visual appeal can be assessed within 50 msec suggesting that web designers have about 50msec to make a good first impression." Behaviour and Information Technology, 25:115 - 126 (2006).

By website optimization on 17 Jan 2006 AM

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