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

Blink, Diallo And The Serpico Blog

I re-watched the excellent Serpico recently: A classic movie that should be watched back-to-back with The Corporation.

Hunting the web for more on Serpico the man I found he has his own blog: the Official Frank Serpico Blog. I find that a pretty amazing example of how the Internet, and in particular blogging, has changed things. From the sense of isolation Al Pacino’s Serpico projects in the movie, and the fact he had to go to the New York Times to be heard, to having a blog to air his views. Not perfect, but a great advance. (Of course, there’s the question as to whether it really is his blog, and how one proves one is the real author, but let’s leave that aside. There is a website as well.)

Anyway, like all blogs, it’s patchy. Started last May, there’s a big gap from last December until two days ago, when he publishes a letter he sent earlier this week to Malcolm Gladwell, author of the excellent Blink:

In the book Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, I believe Gladwell has mistaken bad police work in the killing of Amadou Diallo with the life and death split second decisions that police officers are forced to make every day. A situation like this raises issues of police credibility. This is a letter that I sent to Mr. Gladwell expressing my thoughts on the matter.

I don’t have the book handy, but as I recall Gladwell uses the Diallo shooting as an example of how ‘thin-slicing’ predictions can go awry, in this case based on race. Serpico’s point, as I understand it, is that Gladwell may be mis-using the example because of the very thing he himself was a victim of: the institutional ‘lie-factor’.

As I understand it, Serpico says the policemen’s testimony over the shooting — in which an innocent man was mistaken for a criminal because of his race and his ‘suspicious’ behaviour in response to the policemen’s approach — is suspect, and therefore should not be used as academic source material. He says it is called ‘testilying’ — when policemen are coached to deliver testimony that better fits with operating procedures:

In the Diallo case officers continually testified “I’m like, alright, definitely something is going on here” …“What I seen was an entire weapon”, “my prior experience and training, my prior arrest, dictated to me that this person was pulling a gun”, key words when testilying. “Gun, he’s got a gun” ad nauseum. Fact — there was no gun. They never saw a gun, they were never in any danger. They created, orchestrated and dictated the entire scenario, ending in catastrophe, supercharged by testosterone.

I don’t know much about the case itself beyond what Gladwell and Serpico wrote, but I guess it will be interesting to hear Gladwell’s response. As far as I know, he has no blog. Shame, because blogging is a perfect way to address these kinds of issues, and dig out some kind of truth.

Know What You Don’t Want

It occurred to me this evening having dinner with a friend that most online dating sites have got it all wrong. They should take a leaf out of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and ask those seeking partners not to state what they’re looking for in a partner, or what they’re like themselves, but what they’re not looking for, and what they are not like.

I can’t remember what Gladwell wrote exactly, because I’m far from my books, but basically

  • we’re awful at expressing what it is we want, like or are looking for. When was the last time you were able to explain why you liked something properly?
  • when we’re looking for a relationship all we really know (as opposed to what we think we know, which is nothing) is that we don’t a repeat of the previous six failed relationships we want, and the kind of partners we had;
  • there are certain things we really can’t accept. I’m not big on big gums, big hair and oversized nostrils. Call me superficial, but that’s me. It’s a much easier way of describing my future partner than ‘nice personality, blonde, works out’, since that covers way too many people, without ever filtering out the kind of people who I know I would never consider dating.
  • It’s not about being picky: It’s about being able to articulate what you want, and being able to articulate what you don’t want better than what you do.
  • The converse is that it’s better to define in your profile what you’re not rather than what you are. That way other people save time finding out whether your views on Creation, say, are incompatible with their own, or whether you don’t have especially flat feet.

Call it The You May Not Know What You Want, But At Least We’ll Find Out What You Don’t Want Dating Agency. I’ve patented the idea already.