How long does it take to evaluate a website? As little as 50 milliseconds, or one-twentieth of a second, according to a new study by Canadian researchers published in the journal Behaviour and Information Technology. And not only is a judgment made about the appeal of a site with amazing rapidity — nearly as quickly as the eye can acquire the information — but that first impression has a lasting impact on the observer’s opinion.
Lead researcher of the paper, Gitte Lindgaard of Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, was stunned by the results. “My colleagues believed it would be impossible to really see anything in less than 500 milliseconds,” she told the Nature website.
This certainly emphasizes the importance of good visual design, which we were just discussing yesterday in the context of blogs.
“Unless the first impression is favorable, visitors will be out of your site before they even know that you might be offering more than your competitors,” Lindgaard said. With 60% of more of typical commercial site traffic coming in from search engines, that instant first reaction determines whether the reader stays with the site or immediately goes back to the search engine.
Lindgaard and her team had volunteers glimpse websites, previously rated as particularly plaeasing or jarring to the eye, for roughly the duration of a single frame of standard television footage. The researchers then asked the participants to rate the websites on a sliding scale of visual appeal, and the results correlated very well with with judgments made after much more extensive scrutiny.
These rather amazing results are created by the “halo effect,” whereby the initial snap judgment based strictly on visual appeal colors observers’ opinions as they study the subject, in this case websites, more thoroughly. Their initial favorable reaction can cause them to rate other aspects of the site, such as content, more highly than they would have, and to overlook flaws which otherwise might have bothered them.
This is due to “cognitive bias,” Lindgaard told Nature. People want to be right about their judgments, so continuing to see the rosy side of a site that gave a good first impression provides “proof” to participaants that they made a good initial decision. Lindgaard said this process can be seen all across society. “It’s awfully scary stuff, but the tendency to jump to conclusions is far more widespread than we realize,” she says.
But people who make that 50-millisecond decision that Blogcritics.org is one snappy smoking site: well, they just happen to be right.