Catching The Surfer in a Blink

Interesting news for web site designers, bloggers and PR types: Web users judge sites in the blink of an eye.  An article in Nature (thanks, BBC) quotes a study by Gitte Lindgaard of Carleton University in Ottawa in the journal Behaviour and Information Technology, that “the brain can make flash judgements almost as fast as the eye can take in the information”:

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.

This surprised the researchers but is perhaps not that extraordinary. First off, people like to stick with an opinion once made, even if they’re wrong or would prefer to revise it — what’s called ‘cognitive bias’. As Nature quotes Lindgaard as saying, “It’s awfully scary stuff, but the tendency to jump to conclusions is far more widespread than we realize,” she says. Secondly, people will tend to regard the rest of the web site favourably if their initial response was favourable — the halo effect at work, as first impressions create an enduring bias. And of course, anyone who has read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink will know about all this.

So what does it mean for web sites and web designers?

Most comment focuses on the need for a good first impression. Nature quotes Marc Caudron of London web-design agency Pod1 as saying users will quickly jump back to Google if they don’t engage quickly: “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.

Other comment focuses on the ‘increasingly savvy nature of consumers’: Internet marketing and design expert Pedro Sostre told the E-Commerce Times that he believes consumers “are becoming more and more design-savvy every day — and they may not even know it.. Just by interacting with various catalogs and Web sites, they are becoming design critics.” He cites an interesting example: the recent redesign of the Sprint web site to yellow, the same color as that of power tool maker Dewalt. This, he says, made users think they confused because they associated yellow with power tools, not with electronic devices.

It is no doubt true that certain colors are associated with certain kinds of products (although yellow is also the dominant site of Symantec, which despite the imagery on their product boxes, sells computer software, not power tools). Or perhaps it is more subtle than that. As Australian associate professor of psychology Bill von Hippel, quoted by Australian ABC as saying about the report that “this may be because we have an affective or emotional system that [works] independently of our cognitive system”, the point really is that we learn new environments quite quickly. We quickly familiarise ourselves with new menus, new shower heads, new traffic systems, new faces at parties. We shouldn’t be that surprised we’ve now gotten used to the web. Color is part of it but only a small one.

Several interesting points emerge from this. Web site designers and PR types still think about web site design in terms of “design” — filling a page with appealing colors, images and movement. (Check out the plethora of web site design books in a bookshop if you don’t believe me). But in fact the web is moving in the other direction — just look at how blogs have emptied the page of clutter and, because they focus on speed and content, have really caught on. (Google has also helped spur this ‘white space’ momentum.) So while a lot of designers are going to draw the conclusion from this study that they need to pack a lot in to make those 50 milliseconds count, perhaps they should take a lesson from blogs and head the other way.

Another interesting implication is for Google and search engines. There has been a move towards search engines that include small thumbnails of the web page itself (I can’t actually recall off the top of my head which ones, let me get back to you on that), allowing the user to preview the site before actually clicking on it. These haven’t really caught on yet, but this research opens up all sorts of possibilities there. Cluttered websites are not going to look as good in such thumbnails as clean, simple ones. But not necessarily blog-like structures, because they will all end up looking the same. There’s definitely a business opportunity there somewhere.

Finally, there’s one more implication that I can think of from this: Why are people learning to form impressions so quickly? Is the experiment something that doesn’t reflect normal behaviour — glancing at a site and forming an impression — or is it exactly what we do? My guess is that it is, and I think that has to do with three things: firstly, we still regard browsing (in the sense of looking at websites without any specific goal in mind, or only some vague idea of what we’re looking for), for the most part, to be a frivolous activity, whether we’re at work or not. So we tend to move quickly from page to page, as if that somehow reduces the overall time we’re wasting.

Secondly, I think reading on a computer screen is still not a natural or pleasant experience for most people, so we tend to move more quickly from page to page, If our subconscious is telling us anything, it’s “move on, I don’t enjoy reading at a screen and I want you to move on.” The fact that our hands are poised over the keyboard and mouse make this kind of decision an easy one to make, possibly bypassing all our smarter, more intellectual responses to what we see. It’s like holding a tennis ball in the hand: It’s virtually impossible not to try to juggle it, throw it, bounce it or otherwise play with it.

Finally, there’s a contradiction between what lures us somewhere and what makes us stay. We move quickly through the web because the bright lights that attract us to a page don’t encourage us to stay. Call it the McDonald’s Effect: Bright lights, yellow and red color all welcome us, but don’t encourage us to linger or relax. Same with a lot of web pages. What would be interesting to see is research that explores whether users are draw to those same bright colors in web sites or more soothing colors, nice fonts, quiet layouts, which may not catch the eye but are likely to encourage the user to stay.

Bottom line: Interesting research, but the conclusions to be drawn are more subtle than

17. January 2006 by jeremy
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