When it comes to the judgements we make about the aesthetic appeal of something – say, the look of a website – we typically assume that our opinions are based on conscious assessments, that we have to really see something before we can form an opinion about it. Care to test that assumption?
Shlomo Benartzi, the author of The Smarter Screen: What Your Business Can Learn from the Way Consumers Think Online, has created a simple test that you can take online in less than a minute. Click on the test in the middle (‘Visual Appeal – Exercise Number 1’), and then read on.
(click middle test)
All done? If you’re like most people, the first clip was virtually impossible to perceive. That’s because the image was flashed for fifty milliseconds, which is often too quick for conscious awareness. That’s right, it’s asking you to have an opinion about a perception that you didn’t even see properly.
The second clip was a little longer – it flashed for five hundred milliseconds, or half a second. That’s almost certainly long enough to perceive the picture, even if you can’t quite comprehend it. Lastly, you were shown a static image for five seconds, giving you enough time to process many of its details.
No one is really objective about visual appeal
Here’s the strange part: If you’re like most people, then your ratings for the website’s visual appeal remained fairly constant across all three conditions. In other words, it didn’t matter if I gave you fifty milliseconds or five thousand milliseconds – your opinion of what you saw remained the same.
You’re not the only one. Other experiments have shown that we seem to render verdicts about the appeal of a website very, very quickly. What’s more, these verdicts stay the same even when we’re given far more time. We know what we like before we even know what we’re looking at.
…Especially not online
Benartzi’s hypothesis is that when it comes to our digital behaviour, we may be even more influenced than usual by these very fast verdicts generated by the unconscious brain. Because the online world is so visual, we easily slip into a more instinctive mode of thinking. The sheer speed of our online decisions – whether it’s choosing dates on Tinder, skimming articles on The Guardian or buying a lawnmower on Homebase.co.uk – raises the obvious question. If first impressions strongly shape our online judgments, then what are these impressions based on?
Studies show that 55% of visitors to a typical online article spend less than fifteen seconds reading it. This suggests that the average visitor isn’t carefully assessing the content – they’re just reacting to their first impression, making a quick decision to engage or look away. While this tendency might not matter for the assessment of pictures – additional looking probably won’t change our initial judgment – it’s probably not a great idea for text-heavy sites, because it takes time to process written information.
Adapted from The Smarter Screen by Shlomo Benartzi.