Snap Decisions on the Web

Christine Perfetti

January 18th, 2006

What is the smallest amount of time it takes users to form impressions of web sites?

In a recent study described in the scientific journal Nature, Gitte Lindgaard of Carleton University in Ottawa describes her research examining how long it takes users to form impressions about the visual aesthetics of a web site. From the Nature article:

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.

(To get an idea of how long 50 milliseconds really is, take a look at an experiment comparing Bank of America’s home page for 50 milliseconds versus 500 milliseconds.)

All of our research examining users’ snap judgments is consistent with Dr. Lindgaard’s findings. We’ve seen in testing that users make important judgments very quickly when they arrive at a web page. That’s one of the reasons we use 5-second tests as our primary technique for evaluating users’ first impressions.

While I agree that users make very quick judgments about a site’s visual appeal, I disagree somewhat with the implications suggested by the study’s researchers:

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.

From what I can tell, the researchers didn’t find any actual evidence that users will leave a site after 50 milliseconds if they find a site visually unappealing. The problem with Lindgaard’s conclusions is that the research didn’t study how users behave when they’re trying to accomplish their tasks.

For example, CraigsList is a site that has tested very well with our users. Users loved the site. Why? Not because the site was visually appealing. CraigsList succeeded because the content surpassed their users’ expectations. The site makes its users happy despite what some might consider poor aesthetics. And none of the users left the site because of a “bad design.”

In all of our research studying user behavior, we see that visual aesthetics play a role in users’ judgments — but they take a backseat to the site’s content.

10 Responses to “Snap Decisions on the Web”

  1. Ben Chestnut Says:

    I’ve always been fascinated by how some of the most “visually unappealing” websites out there seem to be the ones most heavily used (and profitable). And sitting through way too many useless focus groups has taught me that some of the most “visually appealling” sites actually are the _least_ used. “Just because it’s pretty, doesn’t mean they’ll click.” Craiglist is my favorite example, but eBay and Google are similar. Most graphic designers would call those sites ugly. But people sure seem to like ‘em. Could it be that the definition of “beauty” is different for websites than it is for “print?” Or is it just that the first “early adopters” of those sites—the ones who generate all the word of mouth—just prefer sites that aren’t overly commercial, or too “slick?” Maybe this suggests that in the beginning, your sites should be more “function” than “form.” Heck, maybe even a little “clumsy” and “buggy.” Then, as the site grows in popularity, you slicken it up some. Neat post.

  2. First Impressions… at blog.bradgrier.net Says:

    [...] The full counterpoint here. [...]

  3. blog.bradgrier.net Says:

    First Impressions…

    Looks like first impressions really do matter, as far as website design goes. Nature is running an article about research done by a Canadian researcher; conclusion is that in about 1/50th of a second, you’ve made up your mind about liking the sit…

  4. Tim King Says:

    Hi, Christine. It’s refreshing to read this. It’s the same objection I had to all the hubbub. Dr. Lindgaard merely said people can know in 1/20th of a second whether or not they like the visual design of a website. But to conclude that we only have 1/20th of a second to make a good impression? Not one shred of evidence is cited for this conclusion. Some people are going to browsing to and fro, but most of us are looking for something in particular. Intuitively, the type and quality of content has a greater effect on browsing patterns than does visual appeal. But whether or not this intuition bears out, Dr. Lindgaard’s study didn’t even attempt to address that quesiton.

    -TimK

  5. The Dock: Login Says:

    [...] [...]

  6. Rob Cottingham » What do you think of this web si-..? Oops, time’s up. Says:

    [...] Updated: The fine folks at UIE Brain Sparks make the very good point that function is at least as important. That is, if the site doesn’t allow users to do what they want to quickly and easily, your lovely design may not matter that much: For example, CraigsList is a site that has tested very well with our users. Users loved the site. Why? Not because the site was visually appealing. CraigsList succeeded because the content surpassed their users’ expectations. The site makes its users happy despite what some might consider poor aesthetics. And none of the users left the site because of a “bad design.” [...]

  7. Small Multiples, a blog by Dmitry Nekrasovski » Blog Archive » Trust and snap decisions on the Web Says:

    [...] A recent UIE article examines the results of a study published by researchers from my first alma mater, Carleton University, that found that users reach conclusions about the visual appeal of a website in as little as 50 milliseconds. UIE’s Christine Perfetti agrees with this finding, but takes issue with the conclusion drawn by the study’s authors that a poor visual impression necessarily leads to users leaving a site: The problem with [the study’s] conclusions is that the research didn’t study how users behave when they’re trying to accomplish their tasks. For example, CraigsList is a site that has tested very well with our users. Users loved the site. Why? Not because the site was visually appealing. CraigsList succeeded because the content surpassed their users’ expectations… In all of our research studying user behavior, we see that visual aesthetics play a role in users’ judgments — but they take a backseat to the site’s content. [...]

  8. Fuzzy Content » Blog Archive » Flame on: Live Meeting Says:

    [...] First impressions matter. Windows Live isn’t looking so good to this ‘user’. [...]

  9. Johnny Says:

    cool site by the way =)

  10. owrede_log @ FB4 » Blog Archiv » »Snap decisions« bei Websiten Says:

    [...] iLife ‘06 Visualisierung-Berater » Nicht kategorisiert Sonntag, 22. Januar 2006 »Snap decisions« bei Websiten Christine Perfetti von UIE Brainsparks berichtet über einen Beitrag in der Fachzeitschrift Nature,in welchem über Wahrnehmungsforschung an der Carleton University in Ottawa berichtet wird: 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. [...]

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