First Impressions Count in Website Design

January 19, 2006 (PRLEAP.COM) Technology News
Web designers have as little as 50 milliseconds to capture the interest of potential customers. Through the halo effect, first impressions can influence subsequent judgments of website credibility and buying decisions.

Web users form first impressions of web pages in as little as 50 milliseconds (1/20th of a second), according to Canadian researchers. In the blink of an eye, web surfers make nearly instantaneous judgments of a web site's "visual appeal." Through the "halo effect" first impressions can color subsequent judgments of perceived credibility, usability, and ultimately influence our purchasing decisions. Creating a fast-loading, visually appealing site can help websites succeed.

For the full “First Impressions” article and interview, see

"My colleagues believed it would be impossible to really see anything in less than 500 milliseconds," Dr. Gitte Lindgaard told Nature, which reported the research Lindgaard published in Behaviour and Information Technology.

Researchers led by Dr. Gitte Lindgaard at Carleton University in Ontario wanted to find out how fast people formed first impressions. They tested users by flashing web pages for 500 msec and 50 msec onto the screen, and had participants rate the pages on various scales. The results at both time intervals were consistent between participants, although the longer display produced more consistent results. Yet, in as little as 50 ms, participants formed judgments about images they glimpsed. The "halo effect" of that emotional first impression carries over to cognitive judgments of a web site's other characteristics including usability and credibility. We talked to Dr. Lindgaard about her study:

For the full “First Impressions” article and interview, see

Lindgaard: "I was really interested to know if these aesthetics judgments were a mere exposure effect. There are lots of other reasons that affect user satisfaction…. The data we have just published only speak to the speed with which people decide upon an image being shown to them. People decide very quickly how much they like a web page."

WSO: So if we come to aesthetic judgments (first impressions) within 50-500 ms, is there any cognition involved? Or is 1/20th of a second impresion purely a physiological and emotional response?

Lindgaard: "That seems to depend on your age. When a group of high school kids saw the slides for 50 msec they were able to discern much more detail than were older people. People taking part in our experiments were not able to see details, so they had no clue about the informational content. Hence, for adults, this response is unlikely to involve cognition (this corresponds with LeDoux and Damasio's findings)."

WSO: How does loading speed play a part in your research?

Lindgaard: "I think that speed is an important determinant for a lot of factors."

The Halo Effect

The speed at which users form value judgments of web pages precludes much cognitive thought. The users tested had an emotional reaction to home pages that they could not control. This pre-cognitive "affective reaction" is a physiological response to what they see on the screen - a gut reaction. This carry over of first impressions to other attributes of products is sometimes called the "halo effect," or cognitive "confirmation bias" where users search for confirming evidence and ignore evidence contrary to their initial impression. People want to be right, and tend to look for clues that validate their initial hypothesis.

"…the strong impact of the visual appeal of the site seemed to draw attention away from usability problems. This suggests that aesthetics, or visual appeal, factors may be detected first and that these could influence how users judge subsequent experience…. Hence, even if a website is highly usable and provides very useful information presented in a logical arrangement, this may fail to impress a user whose first impression of the site was negative." - (Lindgaard 2006)

Emotion and Cognition

There clearly is an interplay between our emotional reaction to a webpage, and our conscious thought process. "Consumers apply both holistic (emotional) and analytic (cognitive) judgment in the decision to buy a product." So that feeling you evoke in users through a "clean, professional design" can have a halo effect on their buying judgments (Fogg 2003).
Sketches versus Photographs in Recognition Speed

Note that a sketch is recognized more readily than a realistic photograph. While he was at the University of Montreal in the 1960s Michael Mills showed that people would recognize a sketch of a hand in about 50 milliseconds, even though the hand had only three fingers and a thumb. They were much worse recognizing a realistic photo of a real hand. The Immuexa site has drawings as icons.
Visual characteristics of Visual Appeal

The study participants also rated home pages on seven visual characteristics. Five of the seven visual characteristics tested correlated well with visual appeal:

Significant Visual Characteristics of Visual Appeal of Web Pages interesting – boring

(r2 = .91, p < .001)
good design - bad design (r2 = .92, p < .001)
good color - bad color (r2 = .90, p < .001)
good layout - bad layout (r2 = .88, p < .001)
imaginative - unimaginative (r2 =.86, p < .001)

r2 = squared Pearson Product Moment correlation coefficient

Visual appeal and "simple-complex" had a low correlation (r2= .01, p > .80) while there was a moderate correlation between attractiveness and "clear - confusing" judgments (r2 = .39, p < .001).

About Web Site Optimization

Don't Make Me Wait! The popular book titled "Speed Up Your Site – Web Site Optimization" by Andy King, and the companion web site are about designing "speedy" web sites with techniques that…

* Cut file size and download times in half
* Speed up site load time to satisfy customers
* Engage users with fast response times and flow stimulus
* Increase usability, boost profits, and slash bandwidth costs
* Improve search engine rankings and web page conversions

Andy King is also the founder of and, both award-winning developer sites from Created in 1995 and subsequently acquired by Mecklermedia (now Jupitermedia) in 1997, WebReference has grown into one of the most popular developer sites on the Internet.

While he was Managing Editor of and, Andy became the "Usability Czar" at, where he optimized the speed and usability of their sites. In addition to his consulting work, he continues to write the monthly Bandwidth Report and the “Speed Tweak of the Week” for