First Impressions Count Even More on the Web

Opinion: Many businesses seem to have forgotten that poor Web site design can turn potential customers off-for good.

Youre the greatest! Well, maybe youre not the greatest, but, in my book, youre pretty OK just for regularly reading my columns and reviews.

Now I have to come clean about that opening statement—its simply a shameless attempt on my part to get people to really like my columns.

Why would I do this? Because a recent study on Web site design claims that visitors to a Web site decide if they like or dislike the site in a split second, as the site loads.

Using that logic, I figured that starting off with flattery would work for a column.

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But is what the study suggests really true? Do content, trust and quality mean nothing if visitors dont like the look of the site?

Unfortunately, especially for organizations whose sites are poorly designed, this study is on to something. After all, weve all had that immediate "blech" reaction when loading an unattractive site.

This study also follows along with the theory discussed in a popular book from last year, Malcolm Gladwells "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking," which essentially posits that people make most major decisions in a split second.

During the course of the study, which was conducted at Carleton University in Ontario and published in the journal "Behaviour & Information Technology," researchers asked subjects to view Web pages for 50 to 500 milliseconds.

The researchers found that subjects formed an opinion about a site in as little as 50 ms and that this initial split-second decision carried over into subsequent opinions about the site.

So, I guess mom was right about the importance of making a good first impression. Now, all you Web site designers: Get out there and make a Web site that people will love instantly. But just how do you do that? Well, thats the problem—one persons great Web site is another persons annoying sinkhole.

In an article at, the studys lead researcher shared some of the worst- and best-scoring Web sites from the study. The worst were clearly bad, with one being the Web equivalent of a loud, brightly colored plaid leisure suit.

But some of the high scorers dont provide much guidance, either. Some looked pretty good, but a couple were the type that I find annoying and that many readers have told me they dislike—sites that have lots of moving Flash graphics and distracting menus.

So, creating a well-designed site isnt as easy as copying what these high-scoring sites have done. But that doesnt mean Web site designers should simply give up.

First, make sure you arent a "dont" example when it comes to your Web site. Avoid the most common mistakes, such as overcluttering the page, using ads or animations that cover content, and incorporating unintuitive navigation elements.

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If competing sites are eating your lunch trafficwise, check them out. Good design probably has a lot to do with it. So far, no one has patented good Web design principles, so feel free to learn from what your competitors are doing right and emulate that in your own site design.

I might humbly add that an article I wrote last year, Good Web Design Pays Dividends, provides some more useful information about how to go about improving your site design.

To me, the most important thing about this study isnt that people make a split-second decision about a Web site based on its design; its that, no matter how long it takes to realize it, the site design matters a whole lot.

Companies should pay close attention to that. There are too many Web sites out there that arent very good. A study such as this one should remind businesses that their site is the face of their company for most customers. You dont want customers to dislike the way you look.

Hey, you got all the way to the bottom of this column. That must mean that my little "youre the greatest" gimmick worked. Or, maybe you like me, you really like me.

Nah, must have been the gimmick.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at

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