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Your Website Should Act
Like Web Ritalin [pt 1]

Nobody pays attention anymore. We’re so fragmented by the torrents of information and the many ways in which it comes at us, that people just tend to skitter about from one thing to another as they attempt to get a read on large swaths of data. It’s just a hazard of the accelerating information age: We all have ADD now. Because of this, we need to understand how this affects the experience people have when they visit your website. And, knowing its effect, we need to mitigate it with an approach that behaves like a dose of “web Ritalin”.

It’s critical to understand that when someone arrives on your homepage, they go through two main phases in their interaction with it. The first is quick and happens instinctively, and the second takes more time and is when they begin to invest and try to understand what you have to say. We’ll cover phase one here, and then phase 2 in the follow-up post.

Phase 1: Judging the Book by Its Cover

The first phase is not yet like the process of sitting down to read. Not yet. The main reason is that when coming to your site, visitors are in evaluation mode, and not engagement mode yet.

The old saying goes, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” The truth is, right or wrong, everybody judges the book by the cover. So if you can’t judge the book by its cover, you’ve got the wrong design. And of course, these principles are most exemplified by your homepage.

When arriving at your site, visitors have not yet bought in to who you are and if you’re a fit for their need. At this point, they are just taking a peek. They have invested nothing but a few seconds, and going elsewhere is effortless. Also, their brain is actually in a different mode from that of reading. They’re scanning, and there are a number of things they are processing at once:

  1. Is this actually the right sort of product/service/organization/information?
  2. Are these people real players, or wannabes?
  3. Does this “feel” like a fit? ie: Does it have the right vibe for what I/my company/my client/etc need(s)? (Think of this like relationship “chemistry”)

The Psychology of the First Impression

It’s important to keep in mind that all of these happen before a visitor really does any real reading. They may scan bits of text – picking up pieces here and there, but their eye is jumping around and sampling, they are not yet locked into a groove and making linear progress through a body of text. This means that explanations are not having an effect at this stage. People are sizing up the situation and evaluating the package. It’s like meeting someone at a business networking mixer and trying to get a read on them as you begin to interact. How are they dressed? Are they well groomed? Do they look you in the eye? How do they speak (before you’re even really engaged with what they are actually saying)? Overall, do they feel sincere? Focused? At ease? Articulate? Experienced? Or maybe disorganized? Shifty? Oblivious? Amateur? On the matter of “fit”, would you hire a surf instructor wearing a pinstripe suit and wingtips? An accountant wearing a faded t-shirt and a pair of Vans?

It’s also key to realize that most people don’t consciously break these things down and methodically think through them. Visitors are often not going to even be able to articulate that they are making these evaluations, even after the fact. It’s generally more of an evolving gestalt that they absorb at a more instinctive “gut” level, a sense they have. A “smell test” of sorts. (In an interesting parallel, people in the programming world have cultivated this quick-absorption analysis for getting a read on the quality of code without getting into the particulars, and refer to things that signal something is off as “code smell”)

Humans are very good at evaluating information very quickly without passing it through the assembly line of conscious, linear-sequential thought. The trick is, this happens quickly, so anything in the presentation that is out of step with your ideal target creates dissonance – like hitting clinkers in the middle of a piano concerto. As that dissonance builds up, it creates resistance, and when the individual’s threshold is reached, their evaluation is made that this is the wrong place. If resistance builds, but the threshold isn’t yet reached, it remains and affects the more conscious evaluation that goes on in the next phase where the brain shifts into a more linear analysis of the particulars.

Next, in part 2: Showing Who You Are by How (Not Just What) You Communicate.

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