Saturday, January 14, 2006

First Impressions Matter, Especially Online

In the blink of an eye there is more tangential support for the notion that, especially on the web, popularity does not strictly correlate with quality comes from a new study that suggests potential readers form a lasting opinion about a webpage in just 50 milliseconds.

The study, by researchers at Carleton University in Ottawa and published in the journal Behavior and Information Technology, demonstrates that the brain is capable of evaluating a single webpage nearly as fast as the eye can take in the information.
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While the researchers were surprised that humans could observe and process information in only 50 milliseconds ("My colleagues believed it would be impossible to really see anything in less than 500 milliseconds," says Gitte Lindgaard.) it’s clear that there is no substantive evaluation happening at these speeds.

The Nature.com article points out that:
The lasting effect of first impressions is known to psychologists as the 'halo effect': if you can snare people with an attractive design, they are more likely to overlook other minor faults with the site, and may rate its actual content (such as this article, for example) more favourably.

This is because of 'cognitive bias', Lindgaard explains. People enjoy being right, so continuing to use a website that gave a good first impression helps to 'prove' to themselves that they made a good initial decision. The phenomenon pervades our society; even doctors have been shown to follow their initial hunches, Lindgaard says, relying heavily on a patient's most immediately obvious symptom when making a diagnosis. "It's awfully scary stuff, but the tendency to jump to conclusions is far more widespread than we realize," she says.

The study lends further support to the hypothesis that, especially online, ranking and voting sites (such as Digg.com, or Google) are more representative of popularity contests than anything else, including the quality of the content that is voted to the top.

Just like in high school, it’s looks that really matter.


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