Killing the Myth of 50 Milliseconds


Have you seen this thing about web pages and 50 milliseconds? I’ve heard it from people in several different fields, so maybe you have, too. Here’s the gist:

People take only 50 mlliseconds to decide whether to stay on your site or move on. So you’d better have it looking good!

This weekend I heard it again, from an instructor in a Dreamweaver class.

She asked us all: when we go to a page from a Google search result, how long do we stay on the page before deciding to hit the Back button? We in the class mumbled answers, while I felt annoyed because I knew what was about to happen. And it did:

“You’re all wrong,” she said gleefully, “it’s only 50 milliseconds!”

It’s just not true.

I was going to list all the reasons that the whole idea is silly, but instead I’ll just note what the research does and doesn’t say, and leave it at that.

Here’s what the research in question says:

After looking at the home page of a web site for only 50 milliseconds, people can get a reliable impression of whether it’s visually appealing.

This is a surprising result, because 50ms is an extremely short amount of time, but it’s not really shocking.

Have a friend load a web page while your eyes are closed. Then open and close them as quickly as you can. That’s long enough to get some idea of colors, lines, and even where some of the content is.

Here’s what that research in question doesn’t say:

  1. The research doesn’t say that the audience will leave the site in 50ms, decide whether to leave the site in 50ms, or make any judgments about the entity that produced the site in 50ms.
  2. The research doesn’t say how it matters that it takes only 50ms, rather than 5 seconds, to decide whether you find a site attractive. That is, would you change your design knowing that first impressions can be made really quickly?

To the second point, the only thing I can think of as a practical answer is to make sure that the pretty stuff loads first. Don’t let the gray box load before the pleasing color theme. If you can help it.

But isn’t that what you’d do anyway?

Incidentally, the research in question also doesn’t say whether visual first impressions matter much as far as people buying from or returning to a site. For all I know, other research has that covered.

Has anyone else heard bunkum that drives you crazy? Are there other myths of web design or tech comm that we should destroy?


A PDF of the actual study

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