First impressions matter: why your website should appeal to Capt. Kirk, not Spock

How long does it take for someone to decide they like—or don’t like—your website?

50 milliseconds.

That’s 0.05 seconds. 1/20th of a second. Faster than the blink of an eye. That’s what researchers at Carleton University (Canada) found when asking volunteers to rate websites after being given split-second glimpses. In other words, experiments have shown researchers what painful experience has already taught every goofy metal-mouthed, four-eyed teenager with a crush...

First impressions matter

In the classic Star Trek series (and the recent J. J. Abrams reboot), there was an ongoing clash between Spock’s logic and Captain Kirk’s intuition. There was something so cool about the way Spock could, in a crisis, calmly intone, “This is highly illogical.” But as much as we may fancy ourselves as possessing the half-Vulcan’s unrelenting rationality, the Carleton study proves that we’re hardwired to go with our gut. We’re more Capt. Kirk than we are Mr. Spock.

First impressions last: Kirk goes with his gut—and sticks with it

Of course, snap judgments aren’t breaking news—we all know our tendency to judge a book by its cover. But what is particularly interesting is this: users’ first impressions don’t change very much over time. The Carleton researchers found that those initial evaluations made at hummingbird-speed remained remarkably stable even after being given more time exploring the websites.

Blame the halo effect. Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains it thus: “If you like the president’s politics, you probably like his voice and his appearance as well. The tendency to like (or dislike) everything about a person—including things you have not observed—is known as the halo effect” (Thinking, Fast and Slow, p.81). And the halo effect doesn’t just apply to people; it applies to websites as well. Make a good first impression and visitors to your site are likely to remain favourable towards it. Make a bad first impression and they’ll be gone in a flash—and they won’t come back.

It’s about the look: Kirk is a sucker for a pretty face

And what are these lickety-split judgments based on? Looks, of course! Yes, we really are that shallow. Researchers at the University of Patras (Greece) found that other aspects, like usability and credibility, are not as influential in forming first impressions as visual appeal (and novelty). For most of us: ugly website = lousy company.

You might be wondering: what does the look of my website have to do with the quality of my wares? Well, not much. You might have a sub-par website and still provide an outstanding product. But your potential customers don’t know that. They don’t get to see your business from “the inside” like you do—all they get to see (or at least, want to see) is the shop window, so to speak. If they don’t like what they see, they’ll assume the worst. Web browsing is a form of information foraging, which is a sciency way of saying that we search for information the way animals search for food: lazily. Or more generously, to quote web-usability expert Jakob Nielsen, we want “maximum benefit for minimum effort.” It takes effort to explore a website, especially a badly-designed one, and so most people simply won’t bother. They’ll just move on to a competitor with a hot website.

And, besides, it’s not entirely groundless. Companies that take pride in their website are also more likely to take pride in their product. So there is at least some logic to first impressions. Even Spock prefers sexy.

Design is crucial: Kirk wears makeup

So how do you get an immediately-stunning website? A team of American researchers found that 48% of first impressions are based on colour and visual complexity. Design a colourful, moderately-complex site and you’re half-way there.

Of course, you could do it yourself but be warned: this is how many hideous websites are born in the first place. A lot of slapdash efforts out there have been made by non-professionals who assumed that, hey, if it looks good to me, it’ll look good to everyone (not talking about you, of course—just some guy I know...). Fortunately, there are build-your-own-website services like Rocketspark that let you to create a good-looking website without having to have any design expertise (and you can always check out our blog for design tips). That way you can save money and still ensure that your website will, ahem, live long and prosper.

Great design isn’t always that easy even if the tools are simple and that’s why you should seriously consider hiring a designer. Yes, that costs money but, then again, so does having a craptacular website that drives people away in 50 milliseconds. A good designer will help create an online experience that will draw users in, make them want to explore to your site further and, eventually, turn them into paying customers. Badabing.

While we’re on the subject, you might like to know that, at Rocketspark, we provide both options. Want us to create a designer website tailor-made to your business? No problem. Want a platform that lets you build your own website that’s high on looks but low on cost? That’s us. I know, I know—that’s a bit of shameless self-promotion. But it’s shameless precisely because I really believe in our product and services. Our D.I.Y. website builder enables anyone to make a slick, professional-looking website. Of course, I would say that. So if you’re skeptical, try it for yourself free for 30 days.

How do you make a good first impression? Get a well-designed website, flash it up on-screen for a split-second and see what people think.