People make snap judgments. It takes only 1/10th of a second to form a first impression about a person, and websites are no different.
It takes about 50 milliseconds (that’s 0.05 seconds) for users to form an opinion about your website that determines whether they’ll stay or leave.
This number comes from specific studies. In the first study, participants twice rated the visual appeal of web homepages presented for 500 ms each. In a follow-up study, they reduced the exposure time to 50 ms.
Throughout, visual appeal ratings were highly correlated from one phase to the next, as were the correlations between the 50 ms and 500 ms conditions. Thus, visual appeal can be assessed within 50 ms, suggesting that web designers have about 50 ms to make a good first impression.
This first impression depends on many factors: structure, colors, spacing, symmetry, amount of text, fonts, and more. All the website screenshots below are for illustrative purposes only.
Users form design opinions even in 17 ms
Recently, Google confirmed the 50 ms number in their own research. In fact, according to their study, some opinions develop within 17 ms (though the effect was less pronounced on some design factors).
The key findings from their study were that websites with low visual complexity and high prototypicality (how representative a design looks for a certain category of websites) were perceived as highly appealing.
Key takeaway: Make your web design simple and familiar. Follow conventions. (i.e. People have a fixed idea of what an e-commerce site should be like.) If you go for innovative, unconventional layouts, people are less likely to like them.
Eyetracking study identifies key elements
It takes 2.6 seconds for a user’s eyes to land on that area of a website that most influences their first impression.
Researchers monitored students’ eye movements as they scanned the web pages. The researchers then analyzed the eye-tracking data to determine how long it took for the students to focus on specific sections of a page—such as
The six website sections that drew the most interest from viewers were:
- The institution’s logo. Users spent about 6.48 seconds focused on this area before moving on.
- The main navigation menu. Almost as popular as the logo, subjects spent an average of 6.44 seconds viewing the menu.
- The search box. Users focused for just over 6 seconds.
- The site’s main image. Users’ eyes fixated for an average of 5.94 seconds.
- The site’s written content. Users spent about 5.59 seconds.
- The bottom of a website. Users spent about 5.25 seconds.
Key takeaway: A good first impression leads to a longer visit duration. Make sure the six elements listed here look great.
First impressions are 94% design related
British researchers analyzed how different design and information content factors influence trust of online health sites.
The study showed clearly that the look and feel of the website is the main driver of first impressions.
Of all the feedback the test participants gave, 94% was about design (complex, busy layout, lack of navigation aids, boring web design, use of color, pop up adverts, slow introductions to the site, small print, too much text, corporate look and feel, poor search facilities)
Only 6% of the feedback was about the actual content. Visual appeal and website navigation had the biggest influence on people’s first impressions of the site.
At the same time, poor interface design was associated with rapid rejection and mistrust of a website. When participants did not like some aspect of the design, the whole website was rarely explored beyond the homepage.
Similar results were found in research for Consumer WebWatch, conducted by Stanford University credibility experts. They found that what people say about how they evaluate the trust of a website and how they really do it are different.
The data showed that the average consumer paid far more attention to the superficial aspects of a site, such as visual cues, than to its content. For example, nearly half of all consumers (46.1%) assessed the credibility of sites based in part on the appeal of the overall visual design of a site, including layout, typography, font size and color schemes.
Key takeaway: Great design gets people to trust you and to stick around. Poor design creates mistrust and makes people leave.
So if you want to make a good impression, where’s the best place to start?
Differentiate your brand with design
Are you chic, silly, sexy, savvy, smart, classic or what? How are you different from the competition? Do you purposefully try to communicate that through typography, images, and design as quickly as possible when a visitor lands on your website?
There’s a balance between avoiding “innovative” design that can put off consumers and seeking out a unique visual style. Too often, companies in the same vertical adopt a “me-too” approach in their design aesthetic. Sometimes, competitive sites are so similar that, if you removed the logo from the site’s header, it’d be nearly impossible to distinguish one site from another.
From what I’ve noticed, this is for 2 main reasons:
- The internal conversation about design aesthetic devolves into one about features, rather than developing a distinct visual identity.
- As a result, the features and aesthetics that “look like they’re working” for the competition are adopted.
Of course, when the new site launches, everyone’s too busy giving each other high fives to notice that the new design is a near carbon copy of a major
If you’ve been wanting to add more distinction to your visual communication, but haven’t known where to start, check out the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique and apply it to your qualitative surveys. This can help you design a first impression that speaks to your brand’s core values without alienating visitors.
“Brand Identity” isn’t just some squishy thing to be shuffled off. Cheskin Research & Studio Archetype found as far back as 1999 that the 6 most important factors in building trust with an ecommerce company are:
- Up-to-Date Technology
- & Security Logos
Now, think about that for a second. If the first impression is that your site is virtually indistinguishable from other websites just like it, the next question is, why would I even bother diving deeper into the product pages, let alone choose you over the competition?
Here’s an example: I Googled “leather jacket” to see if visual distinction and overall first impression would be an issue on a random search. These were the first three results:
Is there anything that makes these pages stand apart from each other? Not really. It’s too bad because Polyvore actually has a pretty unique business model.
Meanwhile, a closer look at the “Men’s Coats” page on both the Zara &
Continuing my search, while Burberry didn’t have a page specifically for “leather jacket,” there’s no denying that the page is distinct from its competitors:
Unlike the other sites, the page quickly lets you know that this brand is about elegance, high
The most distinct site I found during my search came from the Schott NYC homepage. Though I could do away with the image slider, soda cap navigation, and many of the fake textures, there was a charm about the design that made a strong first impression, especially given that it’s an old brand.
You can easily feel the character and emotion and get some sense of whether they’re trustworthy or not, which is what the whole first impression is about.
Shopify has created a list of 100 Beautiful ecommerce designs that feature companies with distinct first impressions.
Key takeaway: You can (and should) communicate a unique brand identity without being so innovative as to confuse or annoy users.
Inspiration drives better first
A study looking into the role of first impressions in tourism websites found that inspiration-related elements had the greatest impact on
Usability was the second most significant driver of first impression formation, followed by credibility.
All in all, this tells us that travelers want to get inspired about a destination (imagery). They don’t want to waste mental energy on figuring stuff out (usability), and they want to be sure that the travel provider is legit (credibility).
Key takeaway: If you’re selling a dream (e.g. the idea of going on a holiday to Fiji), inspiring photography is the leading first impression creator.
Positive first impressions lead to higher satisfaction
In an experiment conducted to study the effects of product expectations on subjective usability ratings, participants read a positive or a negative product review for a novel mobile device before a usability test while the control group read nothing.
The study revealed a surprisingly strong effect of positive expectations on subjective post-experiment ratings: The participants who read the positive review gave the device significantly better post-experiment ratings than did the negative-prime and no-prime groups. This boosting effect of the positive prime held even in the hard-task condition where users failed most tasks.
Key takeaway: if they “instantly” like your site, they’re ready to cut you some slack for any hiccups down the line. It only makes sense to assume that this kind of priming works also the other way: A n
Visual appeal is more important than usability for user perception
A study examined the effects of visual appeal and usability on user performance and satisfaction with a website.
Users completed different tasks on websites which varied in visual appeal (high and low) and usability (high and low). Results showed that first impressions are most influenced by the visual appeal of the site.
Users gave high “usability and interest ratings” to sites with high appeal and low “usability and interest ratings” to sites with
Key takeaway: Invest in design. It’s what matters the most for pulling users in. Funny enough, great visual design will lead to higher usability ratings and actual usability will matter much less.
First impressions can last for years
Research by economists Barry Staw and Ha Hoang looked into the impact of the draft order in the NBA. They observed players’ careers for five years after they were drafted. Five years is enough to prove yourself in many ways, so draft order shouldn’t play a role, right? Wrong. According to the study, the playing time players get is exactly related to their draft order.
Teams granted more playing time to highly drafted players and retained them longer, even after controlling for players’ on-court performance (how well they played matters much less!), injuries, trade status, and position played.
Even after controlling for other factors, every increment in draft number (i.e. getting drafted ninth instead of eighth) decreased playing time as much as 23 minutes. Incredibly, draft order continued to predict playing time all the way through a player’s fifth year in the NBA, the final year measured in the study. Players drafted in the first round had also longer careers; they played for 3.5 more years than the rest.
Another study looking into the persistence of first impressions discovered that new experiences that contradict a first impression become “bound” to the context in which they were made, whereas first impressions still dominate in other contexts. Our brain stores expectancy-violating experiences as exceptions-to-the-rule, such that the rule is treated as valid except for the specific context in which it has been violated.
Key takeaway: If their first impression is negative, it might cause the user to have prejudice against you for years.
Make sure the above the fold area rocks
Over the years, the “above the fold” issue has been hotly debated. Today’s research indicates that people have no problem scrolling and, in fact, prefer it to
Here’s a new dimension of thinking to the “above the fold” issue: It needs to be the best part of your website. First impressions are formed in 0.05 seconds. They’re not going to scroll down in that time. Hence, what they see immediately without scrolling is what determines whether they even want to scroll down.
With that in mind…
Pay extra attention to your navigation
Numerous heatmap studies have shown that navigation is typically among the first & most frequently viewed areas of a website. But the question is, outside of the typical categories, what do you include
According to a study by Business Insider on why people abandon shopping carts, 25% of people stated that the “website is too complicated” (read: navigation is difficult to use), and close to 60% noted “hidden costs” (typically code for shipping costs) as the primary reason they left without pa
In a different study by eConsultancy, asking visitors what the most important aspects were of buying from an unfamiliar brand, among the top answers were “professional design,” “the site contains well-known brands,” and “having contact info visible.”
done well, the site’s navigation can include some or all of the things that, if absent, discourage visitors from buying. Just look at how much is communicated in the navigation of one of my favorite sites, ThinkGeek, without ever getting into the content of the site.
Without having to hunt too much, it’s easy to find:
- Multiple ways to navigate deeper into the site (categories, interests, search)
- New, Top, and Exclusive products, as well as a hint of the products they carry (gifts, t-shirts, electronics, gift certificates)
- A rewards program
- Products that are on sale
- Their “Free Shipping” threshold
- Customer support availability (via live chat & “help” buttons)
Now compare that to one of the extreme examples from earlier, Zara, and hopefully you’ll see why this is important.
Case Study: Alight Increases Site Searches 16% and Purchases 25%
Knowing their site felt dated, the plus-size women’s retailer alight made their site-wide navigation more modern. They increased the size of their search bar, removed the trust symbol, incorporated “sale” and “new” categories into the pink navigation area, and clarified their value proposition, among other minor updates.
The result was an increase in site searches by 16% and an increase in overall purchases by 25%, all by making the navigation part of a strong first impression.
Visual appeal matters a lot. My best advice: Don’t try to save money on design, ever. I’ve seen time and again how a “plain design overhaul” resulted in significant conversion boosts.
People form their opinion about your site in milliseconds. The first second on your website might matter more than all other seconds that follow. Make sure that second makes a great first impression.