Designing For The Subconscious Mind

In last month’s column, I brought up the idea that the first impression your web site makes can have a bigger impact than many of the more traditional design considerations we tend to regularly obsess about. My theory is that users’ gut-level reactions when seeing a new site for the first time—and the split-second judgments they make about the site based on that first impression—have a major influence on the likelihood that they’ll ever end up transacting with that organization. I was intrigued to find that the amount of time it takes a major league baseball hitter to decide whether to swing at a given pitch is exactly the same amount of time it takes web users to start forming judgments about a site. The magic number for both turns out to be 0.05 seconds, or 50 milliseconds. Which is way faster than we can think consciously.

I decided to test this concept a bit at some recent speaking events. During my presentation, I show the audience a glimpse of two different sites, flashing each up on screen for about half a second (as fast as PowerPoint would let me). I then asked the audience which site they’d rather do business with. The results have been overwhelmingly one-sided. Almost everyone chooses the second site. When I ask people why they chose the site they preferred, they used words like “professional” and “credible.” For the losing site, they used terms like “small-time” and “cheap.”

Ouch. Pretty harsh judgments for a split-second view.

Opinions – everybody has one

What I find fascinating when I conduct these tests is that nobody says “I don’t have enough information to make that judgment.” That would seem to be the rational response. It seems ridiculous that people would make a potentially important decision based on such limited information. Yet every person was totally comfortable in forming and sharing their opinion. Granted, I rigged the experiment to encourage quick judgments. But a part of me is still disappointed that we’re all so willing to form and share judgments so easily. Chalk it up to the Spock in me.

Seriously, it just isn’t logical to base decisions on such superficial factors. Which is exactly the point. Human beings aren’t rational, despite what we’d like everyone to believe. We make decisions based on instinct and emotional inputs and then develop rationalizations to justify our opinions after the fact. Don’t believe me? Ask a close Democratic friend what they think of the Bush tax cuts. Then ask a good Republican friend what they think of Obama’s budget. I’m willing to bet the ensuing discussions are much more emotional than logical.

My point: If you can’t have rational discussions with your closest friends about important topics, why would you ask more of the complete strangers who visit your web site? Better to accept that people react emotionally to seemingly superficial inputs and design your site accordingly.

Questions you should be asking

What are people thinking when they first land on your site? Are they immediately reassured about your professionalism and credibility, and thus more receptive to your marketing messages? Or are they instantly questioning whether they can trust you and looking for any excuse to leave? Realistically, you’re probably somewhere in between these extremes. The question really should be: How much work would it be to improve that first impression, and how does that investment compare to the potential benefit we’d realize by doing so? My experience has been that most sites perform worse on this test than the site owner thinks, and therefore have substantial upside. But before you go down that path you’ll want to get a sense for how your site performs in the first impression contest.

Do your own blink test

Short of conducting brain scanning studies, it’s pretty difficult to test for what are largely subconscious responses. The moment you start asking people to think consciously about their subconscious reactions, you risk tainting your results. That’s why I like the simple “this one or that one?” test I described above. It allows people to simply react to which design they find more appealing without the burden of having to rationalize their responses. Since all your testing for is that initial reaction, that’s really all you need anyhow.

To conduct your own blink test just blink your site and one of your competitors’ sites in front of some users for a split second (any time up to a second is fine), ask them which site they’d rather do business with, and record the responses. You can get more scientific and expand the pool of sites to enable testing of different binary combinations against each other, but that can get complex fast. If you want to go that route, I’d recommend only exposing any individual user to a site one time during the test. Once someone has seen a site once, they develop some level of familiarity with it which then can potentially taint their future responses. So you may find yourself needing a large pool of users to test against.

Ideally you’d recruit users who are representative of your target audience, especially if you serve a niche audience. But I’ve been amazed at the consistency of responses for the sites I’ve tested with diverse audiences. My hypothesis is that the way people react in that split second exposure to a new interface has a lot more to do with how we’re wired as human beings, and less to do with any superficial demographic differences between one person and the next. But that could just be the Vulcan talking again.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Content | Search & Usability


About The Author: is the CEO of Closed Loop Marketing, a search marketing agency specializing in conversion optimization. He also co-authored the best-selling book, Web Design for ROI.

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  • Winooski

    I always appreciate being reminded just how irrational we are. It’s not just humbling; it helps prepare me for the way site users actually use (or avoid) a site.

    …And how’s this for timely? I just this morning found out about the Five Second test tool at (cheers to Twitterers @jowyang, @rnadworny), which exposes an image for 5 seconds to a willing visitor and asks them some questions, e.g., “What were the elements you remember?”, “Which of the 2 images did you prefer?”, “What did you like the most about the image?”. It’s a nice way to crowdsource visual design testing.

  • jasonspalace

    i must throw my two cents in. the internet as we know it is just over 10 years old. what people are “used to seeing” now is only relative to what they have been trained to see since web2.0. the standard will change. the internet and the television are about to combine. it will just take one successful large startup to show the masses that there is a better way to interface. then a new standard will emerge. just look how much operating systems have evolved over the years. i believe and evolution of “the standard” will come with the evolution of the medium that they are on.

    Great article!


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