How long does it take visitors to pass judgment on your website?

The wonderfully gifted Will Rogers famously said, “You’ll never get a second chance to make a good first impression.” Corny? Yes. Overused? Yes. True? Mostly.

I was slogging my way through a Harvard research study titled Predicting Users’ First Impressions of Website Aesthetics With a Quantification of Perceived Visual Complexity and Colorfulness — hey, they’re researchers not copywriters — when I got the harebrained idea to really take a long, hard look at the people who claim that we pass judgment about a website in seven seconds, or four seconds, or the blink of an eye. I’ve used statistics like this time and again, but now it’s time to see if these researchers are heretics, gadflies, and charlatans.

They’re not. Harvard, by all accounts, is a reputable institution. Its researchers might not possess the ability to draft engaging titles for their studies — in fact, this one is downright off-putting — but I do trust their findings. The most important revelation in the Harvard study is that it verified many of the studies prior to it that have clearly found that first impressions regarding a website can literally be measured in milliseconds.

I also found it interesting that adults 45 and older preferred sites with low visual complexity, and that study participants found the websites of Webby Award winners no more appealing than websites that were not award winners.



The findings of a study that was conducted by Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and reported in the journal Behaviour & Information Technology were equally conclusive. Researchers found that aesthetic opinions were formed in 50 milliseconds and a “halo effect” resulted in lasting impressions, good or bad, about a website. Finally, an eye-movement-tracking study by the Missouri University of Science and Technology found that it takes two-tenths of a second to form a website first impression.

Other than the fact that you better have a killer home page, what does all of this mean? First, you better focus on your load times because we’re a downright impatient lot. Second, if you’re creating three home page concepts, for instance, treat them like flashcards and get some immediate reactions from your specific audience segment. Third, website design is far too important to leave up to just the designers. It’s going to require a team of strategists, copywriters (website copywriters that is), designers, salespeople, and key audience types to get the home page right the first time.

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