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Thin Slicing Meets Web Design: Judging the Visual Appeal of Sites

by David Sturtz

Nature has a summary of a paper asserting that “visual appeal can be assessed within 50 ms, suggesting that web designers have about 50 ms to make a good first impression.”

“In the crowded and competitive world of the web, companies hoping to make millions from e-commerce should take notice, the researchers say. ‘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.”

Information architects and usability experts are already chiming in with their interpretations. Peter Merholz relates the findings to document genre and the “shape of information.” Christine Perfetti of UIE points out that they “didn’t study how users behave when they’re trying to accomplish their tasks.”

I completely agree that by not connecting behavior to the user’s reaction the study (as summarized) really has no concrete implications for web design. Page design (especially in the age of Google) is only partially about the user being visually attracted to or trusting a site. More important is the ability of a user to find a match between her information need and a particular webpage.

Related to Peter Merholz’s points, I see interesting connections with the information foraging model that could prove more useful than studying visual appeal. Understanding how quickly a user sizes up the appropriateness of the information on a page, what the user does next, and how to improve a page’s performance seem like key items to learn.

For those interested, here is the citation for the paper referred to in the Nature article.

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