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Web users judge sites in the blink of an eye

January 13, 2006 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

Potential readers can make snap decisions in just 50 milliseconds.

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Like the look of our website? Whatever the answer (and hopefully it was yes), the chances are you made your mind up within the first twentieth of a second. A study by researchers in Canada has shown that the snap decisions Internet users make about the quality of a web page have a lasting impact on their opinions.

We all know that first impressions count, but this study shows that the brain can make flash judgements almost as fast as the eye can take in the information. The discovery came as a surprise to some experts. "My colleagues believed it would be impossible to really see anything in less than 500 milliseconds," says Gitte Lindgaard of Carleton University in Ottawa, who has published the research in the journal Behaviour and Information Technology1. Instead they found that impressions were made in the first 50 milliseconds of viewing.

Lindgaard and her team presented volunteers with the briefest glimpses of web pages previously rated as being either easy on the eye or particularly jarring, and asked them to rate the websites on a sliding scale of visual appeal. Even though the images flashed up for just 50 milliseconds, roughly the duration of a single frame of standard television footage, their verdicts tallied well with judgements made after a longer period of scrutiny.

In the crowded and competitive world of the web, companies hoping to make millions from e-commerce should take notice, the researchers say. "Unless the first impression is favourable, visitors will be out of your site before they even know that you might be offering more than your competitors," Lindgaard warns.

First impressions last

For a typical commercial website, 60% of traffic comes from search engines such as Google, says Marc Caudron of London web-design agency Pod1. This makes a user's first impression even more critical, he explains. "You'll get a list of sites, click the top one, and then either say 'I've engaged' and give it a few more seconds, or just go back to Google," he says.

The lasting effect of first impressions is known to psychologists as the 'halo effect': if you can snare people with an attractive design, they are more likely to overlook other minor faults with the site, and may rate its actual content (such as this article, for example) more favourably.

This is because of 'cognitive bias', Lindgaard explains. People enjoy being right, so continuing to use a website that gave a good first impression helps to 'prove' to themselves that they made a good initial decision. The phenomenon pervades our society; even doctors have been shown to follow their initial hunches, Lindgaard says, relying heavily on a patient's most immediately obvious symptom when making a diagnosis. "It's awfully scary stuff, but the tendency to jump to conclusions is far more widespread than we realize," she says.

Beauty and beholders

So what are the key ingredients of a good-looking website? Caudron suggests that the amount of graphics on the page should be strictly limited, perhaps to a single eye-catching image. "It's not about getting as much stuff on the page as possible," he says.

These days, enlightened web users want to see a "puritan" approach, Caudron adds. It's about getting information across in the quickest, simplest way possible. For this reason, many commercial websites now follow a fairly regular set of rules. For example, westerners tend to look at the top-left corner of a page first, so that's where the company logo should go. And most users also expect to see a search function in the top right.

Of course, says Caudron, the other golden rule is to make sure that your web pages load quickly, otherwise your customers might not stick around long enough to make that coveted first impression. "That can be the difference between big business and no business," he says.

References

  1. Lindgaard G., Fernandes G. J., Dudek C. & Brown J. Behav. Inf. Technol., 25. 115 - 126 (2006).

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