Are Websites Judged in the Blink of an Eye?

    January 30, 2006

People can get a strong impression of your website within one twentieth of a second, according to a new study. But it may not be a lasting impression.

First impressions matter a great deal, according to a study by Carleton University, Canada. “The importance of being pretty” was the heading used by Wired Magazine, in reporting on the study.

It has long being known that looks matter. Studies have shown that more attractive looking people, as well as taller people, on average earn more. The Carleton study asked students to rate the visual appeal of a range of websites on a scale from “Very Unattractive” to “Very Attractive”. The decisions made in the first one twentieth of a second held up over longer periods of examination.

“Unless the first impression is favorable, visitors will be out of your site before they even know that you might be offering more than your competitors,” Gitte Lindgaard of Carleton University stated.

It is unquestionably true that people are highly impatient on the Web. However, it is hard to understand how people can get an impression of a website in one twentieth of a second, when most webpages takes several seconds to download. (Laboratory conditions are not the same as real-life conditions.)

Have you ever visited On a visual appeal scale it would surely rank as very unattractive. It uses garish colors and has blinking text in several places on the homepage. Yet, is one of the most profitable websites that has ever been launched.

Not many people would say that eBay is a pretty website. Nor would many defend the visual appeal of Amazon, MSN, Yahoo or AOL. would hardly win too many design awards. I remember the original Napster website looked like it was designed on the back of a beer mat.

If first impressions are so important on the Web, then why have all the above websites been so successful? Perhaps the answer is that the look of the website comes second to the function of the website.

Aer Lingus, Ireland’s national airline, used to have a very pretty website. On the verge of bankruptcy, it was forced into a radical restructuring of its entire organization. The new management described the Web as “the business”. They created a very ugly website that had a hugely positive impact on their online sales.

It is not advisable to ask anyone to judge the visual attractiveness of a website until you have discerned their opinion in relation to how the website allows them to carry out basic tasks. What do they want to do when they come to the website? Were they able to do that simply and quickly? Only when those questions are answered positively should you focus your energies around the visual appeal.

Function and visual appeal do not have to be in conflict. However, it is clear that the websites that are making the most money are focusing much more on function than visual appeal.

What would be the value of asking people to rate the visual appeal of,,, or Yahoo? We need to be careful about the questions we ask because they could lead us down the wrong path.

For your web content management solution, contact Gerry McGovern

Subscribe to his New Thinking Newsletter: