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Design ● January 2009

The fallacy of first impressions

First impressions are important. But how important?

As software goes, it’s sometimes important and sometimes…not. No doubt, bad first impressions could be a sign that something really is wrong with your software. But, there are two things I’ve learned that account for many bad first impressions.

Sometimes bad first impressions really mean you simply haven’t used the software before.

These are the ones we should really take with a grain of salt. For instance, the first time I used Gmail, I had to get used to it for a few days.

“These emails, they’re like [sic] mini-forums. They’re like threads of discussion…not email. Interesting. Do I like it? No. Yes. I don’t know…maybe?”

Gmail email threads were novel, if not strange. I heard many people rave about it, but I heard many people rip it to shreds. A year later? I stopped hearing about it altogether. Here’s a typical conversation you might have with someone that uses Gmail today:

Male in red cap: “Hey dude, do you use Gmail?”

Male in blue cap: “Yeah.”

Male in red cap: “What do you think?”

Male in blue cap: “It’s fine. Lately it’s been slow. Hey let’s go grab some beers.”

It turns out that both systems work for me, and these two fine gentlemen above. We’ve stopped obsessing over it. In fact, today, I use both Outlook and Gmail. I also know lots of others who use both a non-Gmail email client and Gmail. When I use Outlook, I expect normal, old-school email. When I use Gmail, I expect “special-forum-like-email-madness.” In the end, I’m comfortable with both.

I’ll admit it. It takes some guts to try and redefine paradigms as firmly implanted in society as email. In my line of work, fortunately, the stakes are a lot smaller. Radio buttons or drop down list? Search box on every page or just some pages? The likely answer? Yes. Yes. And Yes. And Yes. In the end, when you are accustomed to seeing the same software over and over, there’s a good chance you’ll get comfortable with whatever design decisions you first had a problem with.

I hear the naysayers knocking. Users conform to software? Are our reactions to software not important? Is this coming from the same dude that helped bring you Flash Application Design Solutions: The Flash Usability Handbook (purchasable at any of your favorite online bookstores)? Yes it is.

I’m not saying that first impressions don’t mean anything. But, those initial gut reactions to having seen something for the first time are often just that. Gut reactions. We’ll always naturally be a bit daunted by something new. Yet, too often, we take those initial user reactions too seriously. Here’s the other problem:

Sometimes bad first impressions are not indicative of what’s really important.

If Google just opened shop and I was a usability tester, here’s what my first impressions might be:

Ask me now, and here’s my rebuttal to my initial first impressions:

First impressions are often skewed because we don’t really get how we’ll ultimately conform to the software. Initially, something I thought would be important (an advanced search) ends up not being important at all. Something that’s a little off from what I’m accustomed to (those buttons should be reversed), I simply get accustomed to after a short period of time. All this points to something else.

Usability testing shouldn’t be worth everything.

Usability tests (the kinds that involve a random sampling of human beings doing tasks at the request of a usability tester) need to be interpreted carefully. Accomplishing specific tasks with a new piece of software the very first time will hardly ever go smoothly if that task has any complexity at all. Sometimes it’s because there are real design problems. But, many times it’s because you’re seeing it for the very first time.

Lasting impressions are much more important than first ones. The problem is, it requires time to develop lasting impressions. With software, very few of us are willing to put in that time. With our own software (the kind we’re trying to deliver to clients, build for our companies, or sell as a product) there are even fewer of us. It’s impractical to wait for lasting impressions before you deploy software. Instead, we can be smart about what first impressions really mean.

Originally published Jan 15, 2009 at We Are Mammoth. Go to the next essay in Design, “How the evolution of baseball stadiums might inform the future of web design”.