Have you ever experienced the following? You did a search in your browser, you clicked on a link to a website and after a glimps you left because you knew that it was just not for you and went elsewhere. I’ve certainly done that. How can we make a decision about a website just in a few seconds? Is this time enough to read and process information? Is this time sufficient to make judgement about a product and decide that’s not what we look for? Or perhaps there is something else behind this quick decision making.

It takes only one tenth of a second to form a first impression about people according to a research and websites/online products are no different.

“Three studies were conducted to ascertain how quickly people form an opinion about web page visual appeal. In the first study, participants twice rated the visual appeal of web homepages presented for 500 ms each. The second study replicated the first, but participants also rated each web page on seven specific design dimensions. Visual appeal was found to be closely related to most of these. Study 3 again replicated the 500 ms condition as well as adding a 50 ms condition using the same stimuli to determine whether the first impression may be interpreted as a ‘mere exposure effect’ (Zajonc 1980). 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.”
By comparison, the average blink of an eye takes 100 to 400 milliseconds. You can read the full study here.

So in less than 50 ms website visitors are going to build a feeling that helps them decide whether they stay or leave. This first impression depends on many factors: structure and layout of your website, colors being used, spacing, symmetry, amount of text, images, fonts and more. Google conducted a research on the subject. In this study they investigated how users’ first impressions of websites are influenced by two design factors:

Visual complexity: how complex the visual design of a website looks

Prototypicality: how representative a design looks for a certain category of websites

They showed screenshots of existing websites that varied in both of these factors and asked participants to rate their beauty.

And these two factors are interrelated: if the visual complexity of a website is high, users perceive it as less beautiful, even if the design is familiar. And if the design is unfamiliar for instance the site has low prototypicality - users judge it as uglier, even if it’s simple.

The results showed that both visual complexity and prototypicality play crucial roles in the process of forming an aesthetic judgment and that the two factors are interrelated: if the visual complexity of a website is high, users perceive it as less beautiful, even if the design is familiar. And if the design is unfamiliar for example low prototypicality, users judge it as uglier, even if it’s simple. Overall, websites with low visual complexity and high prototypicality were perceived as highly appealing.

It takes 2.6 seconds for a user’s eyes to land on the area of a website that most influences their first impression according to a study. Researchers monitored students’ eye movements as they scanned the web pages, then they analyzed the eye-tracking data to determine how long it took for students to focus on specific sections of a page – such as the menu, logo, images and social media icons – before they moved on to another section. The better the first impression, the longer the participants stayed on the page was discovered.

The website sections that drew the most interest from users 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, users spent an average of 6.44 seconds viewing the menu.
  • The search box, where users focused for just over 6 seconds.
  • Social networking links to sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Users spent about 5.95 seconds viewing these areas.
  • The site’s main image, where users’ eyes fixated for an average of 5.94 seconds.
  • The site’s written content, where users spent about 5.59 seconds.
  • The bottom of a website, where users spent about 5.25 seconds.

In summary: clearly the look and feel of the website is the main driver of first impressions. Users strongly prefer website designs that look both simple (low complexity) and familiar (high prototypicality). Great first impression leads to longer website visit duration; and as designers we need to make sure the logo, nav menu, search, hero image, written content and footer look good.