Stupid Research: The Importance of Being Pretty

Here we go again. Wired has a story on The Importance of Being Pretty.
They’re talking about your website.
Says Wired: “Internet users can give websites a thumbs up or thumbs down in less than the blink of an eye, according to a study by Canadian researchers. In just a brief one-twentieth of a second — less than half the time it takes to blink — people make aesthetic judgments that influence the rest of their experience with an internet site.”
The study in question comes to us from Dr. Gitte Lindgaard, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa. She’s the “NSERC/Cognos Industrial Research Chair in User-Centred Design” at Carleton.
No one mentions the report title, but I believe it’s this one: “Attention web designers: you have 50 milliseconds to make a good first impression”, Behaviour & Information Technology, 25, 115-126, Lindgaard, G., Dudek, C., Fernandes, G. & Brown, J., 2005.
In the study, researchers discovered that people could rate the visual appeal of sites after seeing them for just one-twentieth of a second. These judgments were not random, the researchers found — sites that were flashed up twice were given similar ratings both times.
“Unless the first impression is favorable, visitors will be out of your site before they even know that you might be offering more than your competitors,” said Lindegaard.
But the results did not show how to win a positive reaction from users, admitted Lindgaard. “When we looked at the websites that we tested, there is really nothing there that tells us what leads to dislike or to like.”
And while further research may offer more clues, she said the vagaries of personal taste would always be a limiting factor. “If design were reducible to a set of principles, wouldn’t we find an awful lot of similar houses, gardens, cars, rooms?” said Lindgaard. “You’d have no variety.”
This study is just another example of lab-myopia. It’s dangerous. And detrimental to real-world business performance. Lindgaard doesn’t get it.
The real question is: how many people who come to your website do something you want them to do – buy something, opt-in, download a whitepaper, join a discussion, etc. The question is NOT if you have a pretty site, but: “How effective is your site?”
I’m not the only one turned off by this type of stupidity:
Gerry McGovern: “It is unquestionably true that people are highly impatient on the Web. However, it is hard to understand how people can get an impression of a website in one twentieth of a second, when most webpages takes several seconds to download. (Laboratory conditions are not the same as real-life conditions.) Function and visual appeal do not have to be in conflict. However, it is clear that the websites that are making the most money are focusing much more on function than visual appeal. What would be the value of asking people to rate the visual appeal of Ryanair.com, Aerlingus.com, eBay.com, or Yahoo? We need to be careful about the questions we ask because they could lead us down the wrong path.
Jakob Nielsen: It’s a dangerous mistake to believe that statistical research is somehow more scientific or credible than insight-based observational research. In fact, most statistical research is less credible than qualitative studies. Design research is not like medical science: ethnography is its closest analogy in traditional fields of science. User interfaces and usability are highly contextual, and their effectiveness depends on a broad understanding of human behavior. Typically, designers must combine and trade-off design guidelines, which requires some understanding of the rationale and principles behind the recommendations. Issues that are so specific that a formula can pinpoint them are usually irrelevant for practical design projects.
Online, form without function is a disaster.
And that’s why I get mad at “lab-researchers” like Lindgaard.

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