The 50 Millisecond Judgement

Originally published February 2, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Fifty milliseconds is not a long time. It’s about one frame of video, or half as long as the blink of a human eye. And that tiny little slice of time is all it takes for a visitor to a Web site to decide how appealing that site is.

Dr. Gitte Lindgaard and her team undertook a fascinating study at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Their goal: to determine just how long it takes to make a reliable judgment of the visual appeal of a Web site. They found that we can accurately judge visual appeal in just 50 milliseconds, or one twentieth of a second! The study was published in Behaviour and Information Technology, March – April 2006.

In three different studies, the Carleton team flashed home pages of Web sites, specifically chosen to provide a spectrum of visual appeal, at participants for varying lengths of time and then asked the participants to rate the pages from 1 (very unappealing) to 100 (very appealing). In the first two studies, the duration of exposure was 500 milliseconds, or half a second. In the third study, participants were randomly shown the pages for either 500 milliseconds, or 50 milliseconds. The ratings were then correlated and analyzed to determine the reliability of the rankings. Dr. Lindgaard’s team found that reliable assessments of visual appeal can be made even with a 50 millisecond exposure.

Beyond this finding, however, there were a number of topics touched on in the paper that site designers should take to heart. While these topics weren’t included in the scope of the study, the paper cites numerous studies that have tried to explore the nebulous area of visual attraction and how we determine it.

Blink Revisited

For anyone who’s read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, you know that researchers are discovering that humans make decisions in two very distinct ways. On a visceral level, it seems that a decision-making mechanism is hardwired right into our physiology. Our bodies seem to reach conclusions long before our brain catches up. To quote Dr. Lindgaard’s paper, “More recent neurophysiological evidence supports the contention that emotional responses can indeed occur pre-attentively, before the organism has had a chance cognitively to analyze or evaluate the incoming stimulus or stimuli. A small bundle of neurons has been identified that lead directly from the thalamus to the amygdala across a single synapse, allowing the amygdala to receive direct inputs from the sensory organs and initiate a response before the stimuli have been interpreted by the neocortex.”

After this very brief response, we begin to rationalize our response by logically evaluating the stimuli. The two-phase decision-making mechanism typically works together to help us reach our conclusions. Gladwell’s contention is that the first response, the “blink” response, is often the right one.

First Impressions Do Count

So, how important is that first, split-second decision in online interactions? Because of something called a “halo effect,” it can be vital. If we have a positive emotional response in those first few milliseconds, our logical mind will kick in and try to rationalize that response. We will look for positive reasons why it was the right decision, and we will tend to ignore negative factors. If the first impression is not good, the opposite occurs. We look for reasons not to like something, and tend to discount any positives we might find. We want to prove our first impression right.

Translated to an online experience, we make an immediate, intuitive decision whether we like a site or not, without reading one word of content. From that moment on, our entire interaction with that site is colored by that first impression.

Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?

How do you judge what is appealing or what is not? It’s a thorny issue, as Dr. Lindgaard acknowledges in the paper. It’s been said that we all have different concepts of what’s beautiful or appealing. However, there was remarkable consistency across all three studies with the sites that were found appealing, and the ones that weren’t. In fact, it was found that in groups of as small as 5 people drawn randomly from the larger group, consensus emerged on the winners and the losers. So while beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, it appears that we pretty much see eye to eye when it comes to Web sites.

One reason might be in the factors we use to judge appeal on a Web site. We are not looking at it as a pure object of aesthetic beauty. A Web site should be usable, so we are also making an assessment of how appealing a site would be to use. We’re looking for a site to be clean, pleasant and symmetrical. We’re looking for proper use of screen real estate and balance. Previous research by Dr. Marc Hassenzahl suggests that we may use two methods of evaluation, which he refers to as beauty (the pure aesthetic appeal) and goodness (the more practical factors, including usability).

One thing that wasn’t covered in the study was seeing how sites rank when user intent is added to the mix. The participants in the study had no particular goal in mind. They weren’t looking for anything. I would love to see what happens when we introduce intent and participants are judging sites not just on appeal, but on the promise of delivering on their intent.

A Qualitative Research Primer

For anyone who’s interested in qualitative research, this study offers some valuable tidbits on testing methodologies. It’s an interesting challenge to gather results on something as raw and intuitive as a first impression. The minute you start to analyze the response, you distance yourself from that first visceral reaction. Does the very act of rating a site kick in the rational mechanism and bias the original response? As in most studies, Dr. Lindgaard acknowledges that there are many more questions to be answered here. In a brief chat I had with her, she expressed her eagerness to continue down this path, “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “There’s so much more here!”

Back To Those 50 Milliseconds

What does this have to do with search marketing? Well, everything. Through the utilization of search engines, you will hopefully be driving thousands of new visitors to your site. That’s thousands of first impressions, formed in less than the blink of an eye. Search marketing is useless if it doesn’t deliver a positive onsite experience. Our obsession with position and click-through is meaningless if all our efforts (and all budgets) are blown apart by those first 50 milliseconds.

It is my intense belief that the key to success lies in better understanding what happens when those synapses fire and those first impressions are formed. It’s not just an understanding of the mechanics of the Web that will create a successful search marketer. It also helps to peer into the awesome machinery of the human mind.

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