More on first impressions

I know we keep going on about this, but it really is at the heart of good website design.

In recent articles we’ve concentrated on some of the more technical aspects of the subject.  This time we’re going to make a brief foray into the world of “thin slicing” – but before we do that we’re going back to the early 19th century…

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

One of the best and most recognisable opening lines in English literature, from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  It’s a relatively little known fact that her original working title for the novel was First Impressions.  While the book famously goes on to explain how first impressions can be misleading – resulting of course in Darcy and Elizabeth’s wonderfully fulfilling (not to mention predictable) romance – it also indirectly makes the point (since it takes them virtually the entire novel to get together) that first impressions endure.  Thankfully, for Darcy and Elizabeth, not permanently … but web sites don’t have the time that they did! Cue …

Thin slicing 

Coined in 1992 in a paper in the Psychological Bulletin by Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal, it describes the ability to find patterns in events and make sound decisions and judgements based only on very short time windows, or “thin slices”, of experience.

We’re all familiar with the term “gut feelings”, and often act upon them unthinkingly.  Indeed, there is evidence that it’s precisely because we don’t think about these feelings – at least consciously – that they can be so effective.

Henri Cartier-Bresson described thinking as a “decisive moment” of consciousness, whereas thin-slicing is, by definition, an unconscious action or behaviour.

If you’re interested in this topic, an excellent book is Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.  He describes the phenomenon in some detail, and provides several fascinating and thought-provoking examples – many of which can’t be explained by logic; (one wonders how Spock would have coped!).

Two of my favourites are:

  1.  the ancient sculpture bought by a museum at great expense, after significant testing and authentication, which an art expert later declared a fake by simply looking at it for a few seconds from a distance
  2. the fireman who suddenly decided to evacuate his crew from a building because “something was wrong”, although he didn’t know what.  Seconds later the floor collapsed

It’s worth pointing out that such instant decisions and judgements can be wrong too, but you’ll have to read the book to find out more …

And the relevance to web-site design is?

Quite simply, people will make decisions on whether to keep looking at your site not only instantaneously but without even consciously thinking about it … all the more reason to get expert advice!

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and we’ll give you that advice.

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